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Geosciences of Earth-like planets in relation to space missions

Mars magmatic, tectonic and hydrothermal evolution

The overall evolution of Mars was shown to be controlled by the evolution of the Tharsis region, evacuating most of the internal heat of the planet for some 4 billion years. This fascinating area, which covers one-third of the planet’s surface, has for instance controlled the stress field in the Martian crust as much as the planetwide drainage system. We are investigating volcanic evolution of the Tharsis volcanoes through time and how the volcanic edifices and the surrounding region have been deforming. Innovative geologic mapping is expected and will be shared by the European community through the GMAP infrastructure of Europlanet. Internal heat is still channelled to the surface and atmosphere by these volcanoes, generating new lava flows, new crustal deformation, hydrothermal activity, and finally volcanic and hydrothermal gas escape to the atmosphere. We have undertaken to track these processes using all the relevant orbital data, which inform on the recent morphology of the surface, its mineralogy, and its temperature anomalies. This is part of the huge EXOMHYDR project (2017-2021) funded by the TEAM programme of FNP.

The earliest deformation history of Mars revealed

The deep Valles Marineris canyons expose the oldest rocks on Mars, and show how the planet evolved at that time. In these areas we have found evidence of remarkably complex, large-scale deformation affecting rocks which we have started to characterize. This is the core of a NCN-funded grant extending from 2016 to 2021.

Equatorial shallow water concentration

It is also in various areas of Valles Marineris that recently, the FREND instrument onboard ExoMars TGO hosts the highest concentration of shallow hydrogen of the whole planet, poles apart. We have been working wih the FREND team to determine the geological source of this hydrogen.

Mysterious cone fields

Several lowland areas of Mars (Isidis, Chryse and Acidalia planitiae), are pitted by small cone fields, the origin of which we are actively seeking, in possible relation with volcanic activity at Syrtis Major volcanic centre.

For these works we are using datasets from various space mission instruments: Mars Express (PFS, OMEGA, HRSC), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (HiRISE, CTX, CRISM, SHARAD), Mars Odyssey (THEMIS), and ExoMars TGO (CaSSIS, NOMAD, FREND). But understanding the geology of Earth-like planets requires first a good understanding of how similar processes work on Earth, based on similar orbital data but constrained by field data collection. For this reason, we maintain a strong comparative geology approach.

Terrestrial analogues

Since almost the beginning of the history of Mars, the Tharsis region has channelled most of the internal heat channelled to the surface, resulting in a vast quantity of lava flows and intense tectonic crustal deformation. For its famous Cenozoic hotspot, the African Horn on the northern end of Great Rift Valley has long been used as one of the best analogue places on Earth to study processes that shaped Tharsis. To get a better view of the processes at work in Tharsis, a detailed study of the evolution of Cenozoic magmatism and tectonics in Ethiopia and Somalia is being conducted for many years; we are using similar orbital data but also we constrain them with field observations (geology, hydrology) and airborne geophysical (magnetic, gravity) data. For instance, a study has started in 2018 aiming at characterizing and monitoring hydrothermal activity in Lake Asale in Afar, Ethiopia, which is controlled by complex relationships between tectonic extension, magmatic intrusions, and sedimentation of salts, pretty much similar to the situation of some crustal rift zones on Mars. The polyextreme conditions prevailing at Lake Asale are further interesting to study due to the extremophile populations identified at some spots, especially at the Dallol hydrothermal site. The comparative approach has been funded by the Europlanet field site visits programme, as well as data release grants from ESA and Planet Labs.

Terrestrial rocks themselves are analogues of Martian materials; we have performed a number of spectral analyses of basaltic rocks altered in various environmental conditions to help determine alteration environments on Mars. These data have been collectively transferred to the Europlanet SSHADE database infrastructure as the SOSYPOL database.

Mission concepts

As earth scientists, from time to time we have innovative ideas for future exploration of the Moon, Mars and other planets. One has led to the Galago all-terrain planetary hopper concept, currently developed under contract with Astronika as a prototype for lunar exploration. Another concept is MIRORES a far-infrared spectrometer for orbital identification of ore resources at the surface of Mars.

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