20. September 2018
Mars Express mission

Cer­berus Fos­sae – young tec­ton­ic fis­sures thou­sands of kilo­me­tres long on Mars

Vertical plan view of Cerberus Fossae region
Ver­ti­cal plan view of Cer­berus Fos­sae re­gion
Image 1/6, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Vertical plan view of Cerberus Fossae region

All of the Cer­berus Fos­sae elon­gat­ed trench­es on the Ely­si­um plain run in the same di­rec­tion: from north-west to south-east. At the cen­tre of the im­age we see the two most con­spic­u­ous trench­es: fur­ther to the south (left on the pic­ture; where north is to the right) we can al­so see two ad­di­tion­al, nar­row trench­es. The forces, which cul­mi­nat­ed in the crust breakup, act­ed per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly to this. The smooth ar­eas con­sist of so­lid­i­fied, low vis­cos­i­ty la­va. The small num­ber of im­pact craters on its sur­face shows that the vol­canic erup­tions took place in the re­cent ge­o­log­i­cal past. If we zoom in­to the pic­ture, we can see many places where the la­va flow front ran and where it left its mark on to­po­graph­i­cal ‘ob­sta­cles’. La­va al­so made its way out from the Fos­sae to the sur­face, and at times pos­si­bly al­so wa­ter.
Perspective view, looking from south-east to north-west, over Cerberus Fossae
Per­spec­tive view, look­ing from south-east to north-west, over Cer­berus Fos­sae
Image 2/6, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Perspective view, looking from south-east to north-west, over Cerberus Fossae

The land­scape in the Cer­berus Fos­sae re­gion looks as though it has been sliced through with a knife. The tec­ton­ic fis­sure struc­tures were cre­at­ed less than 100 mil­lion years ago, and pos­si­bly even less than 10 mil­lion years ago. This is al­so ap­par­ent from the pro­file of the Fos­sae, which are con­fined by ex­treme­ly steep and in some cas­es al­most per­pen­dic­u­lar walls, which in some places are more than 500 me­tres high.
Perspective view, looking from north to south, over Cerberus Fossae
Per­spec­tive view, look­ing from north to south, over Cer­berus Fos­sae
Image 3/6, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Perspective view, looking from north to south, over Cerberus Fossae

If, in a dis­tant fu­ture, as­tro­nauts drove their Mars ve­hi­cles over the Ely­si­um plain on a sur­vey, trav­el­ling north east­wards to the Ely­si­um Mons and Al­ba Pa­t­era vol­ca­noes, stand­ing at the edge of the Cer­berus Fos­sae, they would have a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence as the Span­ish pi­o­neer Gar­cía López de Cár­de­nas. In the year 1540 – as the first Eu­ro­pean to do so – he gazed in as­ton­ish­ment at the view from the edge of the Grand Canyon. Like him, the as­tro­nauts would have to choose be­tween re­trac­ing their route or mak­ing a ma­jor de­tour. The walls of the Cer­berus Fos­sae are ex­treme­ly steep, al­most per­pen­dic­u­lar in places, and can be more than 500 me­tres high lo­cal­ly. They were cre­at­ed as the re­sult of ex­pan­sion in the Mar­tian crust, in the form of tec­ton­ic frac­tures, through which mag­ma was able to rise to the sur­face and to flood the plains with a thin lay­er of la­va.
3D view of Cerberus Fossae region
3D view of Cer­berus Fos­sae re­gion
Image 4/6, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

3D view of Cerberus Fossae region

Anaglyph im­ages are pro­duced us­ing the da­ta ac­quired by the nadir chan­nel of the Mars Ex­press High Res­o­lu­tion Stereo Cam­era (HRSC), the field of view of which is aligned per­pen­dic­u­lar to the sur­face of Mars, and one of the four oblique­ly an­gled stereo chan­nels. Anaglyphs cre­ate a re­al­is­tic, three-di­men­sion­al im­pres­sion of the land­scape when viewed through red/blue or red/green glass­es. This makes it easy to see that the nu­mer­ous craters in the cen­tre of the im­age, which orig­i­nal­ly would have had a bowl-shape, have been flood­ed by thin la­va and some­times filled al­most to their edges with vol­canic de­posits. By con­trast, the large crater at the right hand (north­ern) edge of the im­age, which is ap­prox­i­mate­ly 30 kilo­me­tres wide, has a formidable crater rim which would have pre­vent­ed the la­va from the flood to flow in­to the in­side of the crater, which is ap­prox­i­mate­ly 2500 me­tres deep. Us­ing the zoom func­tion we can ex­am­ine the Cer­berus Fos­sae rift val­ley, whose width ex­ceeds one kilo­me­tre in just a few places.
Cerberus Fossae region on Elysium Plain
Cer­berus Fos­sae re­gion on Ely­si­um Plain
Image 5/6, Credit: NASA/JPL (MOLA)/FU Berlin.

Cerberus Fossae region on Elysium Plain

On the Ely­si­um Plain, Ely­si­um Mons and Al­bor Tho­lus are two ma­jor vol­ca­noes which are thought to have re­mained ac­tive un­til Mars’ re­cent ge­o­log­i­cal past. Con­se­quent­ly, in the wider area around these vol­ca­noes, there are many signs of tec­ton­ic ac­tiv­i­ty such as ex­ten­sion­al faults that in­clude the Cer­berus Fos­sae. In the course of or­bit 17813, the HRSC cam­era sys­tem on board ESA’s Mars Ex­press space­craft ac­quired the strips of pho­tographs fea­tured here, and the re­gion for the pic­tures shown in this re­lease can be seen in the box.
Topographical image map of the Cerberus Fossae region
To­po­graph­i­cal im­age map of the Cer­berus Fos­sae re­gion
Image 6/6, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Topographical image map of the Cerberus Fossae region

The strips of pho­tographs tak­en, from var­i­ous an­gles, by the HRSC cam­era sys­tem aboard Mars Ex­press, pro­vid­ed the ba­sis for com­put­ing dig­i­tal ter­rain mod­els for the sur­face of Mars, in­clud­ing el­e­va­tion mod­els for each area of the pho­tographs. The colour-cod­ed to­po­graph­ic view (5) is based on a dig­i­tal ter­rain mod­el (DTM) of the re­gion, from which the to­pog­ra­phy of the land­scape can be de­rived. The ref­er­ence body for the HRSC-DTM is a Mars equipo­ten­tial sur­face (Areoid). Dif­fer­ences in el­e­va­tion are eas­i­ly dis­tin­guished, thanks to the dig­i­tal ter­rain mod­el’s colour cod­ing: the low­est el­e­va­tion area, in a large crater which is ap­prox­i­mate­ly 30 kilo­me­tres wide, is lo­cat­ed 5500 me­tres be­low the Areoid, and the re­gions shown in red, at -3000 me­tres, are lo­cat­ed at least 2.5 kilo­me­tres high­er. The Cer­berus Fos­sae are up to 500 m deep.
  • The Cerberus Fossae extensional faults that run almost parallel for 1000 kilometres
  • Formed by relatively recent volcanic activity about millions of years ago, both trenches are still very young
  • Focus: Space, planetary research

Volcanism often goes hand in hand with tectonic shifts in the rock crust on all terrestrial planets and the Moon. Magma bubbles rise up from the planet's interior, making room as they ascend and pour their molten rock over the planet's surface in the form of lava. The emptied magma chambers create cavities, which can cause the rigid masses of rock of the crust to sag and shift. Depending on their nature, these tectonic movements on the planet's surface can be defined as thrust faults, in the case of contractions, and as extensional faults, in the case of stretching. The latter is the most common form of tectonics on Mars. The Cerberus Fossae are two parallel extensional faults that run almost 1000 kilometres across a young volcanic plain in the Elysium Planitia region. The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) system, developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and operated on board the ESA Mars Express spacecraft, photographed these striking rifts in January 2018.

Systematic processing of the camera data was carried out at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof. The Cerberus Fossae – Latin for 'Rifts of Cerberus', the multi-headed 'hellhound', who guards the gates of the underworld in Greek mythology – are particularly striking tectonic fissures. The two trenches run almost exactly parallel to one another and stretch from northwest to southeast. They are extremely steep-sided throughout and in some places cut almost vertically down through the layers of lava. This is an indication that the trenches are still very young, as over time erosion causes rock to break off from steep slopes and edges, so that the gradient of the slopes become increasingly shallow.

One of the youngest geological structures on Mars

The few impact craters on the volcanic plain also indicate that the landscape here cannot be very old. The age of the lava flows can be determined quite by counting all of the craters and measuring their various diameters, and comparing this with other areas of Mars. This method of determining the age of geological surfaces can be applied to all bodies in the Solar System that have a solid surface. Scientists therefore assume that parts of this plain were flooded with low viscosity lava in the recent geological past, possibly even less than 100 million years ago. Lava also rose to the surface out of the Cerberus Fossae (and later presumably so did groundwater).

This makes the near-Equator region of the Cerberus Fossae one of the youngest geological structures on Mars. Although neither Mars Express nor the numerous space probes that have observed the planet from orbit have discovered any signs of volcanic activity, scientists believe that tectonic movements are occurring within the Martian crust. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) developed by the French Space Agency (CNES) was launched aboard the NASA InSight space probe on 6 May 2018 for the purpose of recording Marsquakes. InSight will land a few hundred kilometres to the west – still on the Elysium Plain – on 26 November 2018, and will start recording Marsquakes around the turn of the year. The aim is to investigate the state and structure of the Martian interior. Also on board InSight is the HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package), an experiment developed by DLR, designed to measure the flow of heat from the core and mantle to the surface of Mars, in order to draw conclusions about the state and development of Mars’ metallic core.

Cerberus and Athabasca Valles: parts of the vast Elysium volcanic region

The Cerberus Fossae are tectonic features originating most likely from dilational faulting or from subsidence due to dike emplacement. Rounded collapse pits observed in the northern Cerberus Fossae indicate an early stage of graben subsidence, and are particularly evident in the northern part of the Cerberus Fossae. Besides, numerous volcanic dikes formed in the Martian past in the north-western volcanic region of Elysium, which is home to the 12.5 kilometre-high volcano Elysium Mons. Dike emplacement induces deformation and can lead to the formation of fissures and graben at the surface above the dike.

The outflow channel system Athabasca Valles (see image 6), which rises in the Cerberus Fossae can bee seen to the west of the image shown here. Presumably, the Cerberus Fossae fissures have ruptured the Martian crust millions of years ago to a certain depth, to be able to discharge lava from a volcanic source as well as groundwater. The dark material within the Cerberus Fossae and on the floor of the unnamed impact crater were carried here by winds and formed dunes made of dark sand. Dark dunes are very common on the surface of Mars and consist of old volcanic ash.

  • Elke Heinemann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Pub­lic Af­fairs and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-2867
    Fax: +49 2203 601-3249

  • Ulrich Köhler
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Plan­e­tary Re­search
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489 Berlin
  • Prof.Dr. Ralf Jaumann
    Freie Uni­ver­sität Berlin
    In­sti­tute of Ge­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences
    Plan­e­tary Sci­ences and Re­mote Sens­ing
    Telephone: +49-172-2355864
    Malteserstr. 74-100
    12249 Berlin
  • Daniela Tirsch
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    In­sti­tute of Plan­e­tary Re­search
    Telephone: +49 30 67055-488
    Fax: +49 30 67055-402
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Köln

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