Most meteorites found on the Earth’s surface are fragments of small bodies left over from the accretion of the planets around 4.5 billion years ago, thanks largely to collisions among larger, asteroid-sized bodies. A minority have other origins: some as debris from otherwise icy comets and a few that have been flung off other rocky planets or large moons by crater-forming impacts. Meteorites suspected to have originated through impact are ‘rocky’ – i.e. made of silicates – and have textures and mineral contents suggesting they formed late in planetary evolution. Most are igneous with basaltic or ultramafic composition: respectively lavas and cumulates formed in magma chambers. Some are breccias, hinting at a pyroclastic origin. The radiometric ages of such planetary fragments are generally far younger than the times when the solar system and planets formed. Almost 300 have been classified as coming from Mars, only two of which are older than 1400 Ma. The most numerous group of Martian meteorites, known as shergottites, crystallised between 575 and 150 Ma ago to form crust of igneous origin. During the journey from their source to Earth meteorites are exposed to high-energy cosmic rays that generate a variety of new isotopes, from whose relative proportions their travel time can be estimated. The shergottites all seem to have been blasted from Mars a mere 1.1 Ma ago, suggesting that a single impact launched them. So, identifying their source crater on Mars would enable the shergottites to be treated in the same way as samples collected by geologists from a small locality on Earth. Their geochemistry should give important clues to processes within Mars over a time period that spans the late-Precambrian to early Cretaceous on Earth.
There are many craters on Mars, so homing-in on a single source for shergottite meteorites might seem a tall order. A strategy for doing that depends on recognising craters formed by impacts with sufficient energy to eject debris at the escape velocity from Martian gravity: about 5 km s-1 compared with 11 km s-1 for Earth. Calculations suggest that such impacts would produce craters larger than 3 km across. Large ejecta travelling at slower speeds from them would fall back to produce smaller craters arranged radially from the main crater, forming distinctive rays. Anthony Lagain and colleagues from Curtin University, Western Australia and other institutions in Australia, USA, France and Côte d’ Ivoire adapted a detection algorithm to locate craters less than 1 km across that formed in rays around larger craters (Lagain, A. and 10 others 2021. The Tharsis mantle source of depleted shergottites revealed by 90 million impact craters. Nature Communications, v. 12, article6352; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26648-3). They used 100 m resolution images of thermal emission from the Martian surface that most clearly distinguish large craters that have ejecta deposits around them. Then they turned to images with 0.25 m resolution covering the visible spectrum that can spot very small craters. The authors’ analysis compiled around 90 million impact craters smaller than 300 metres across (a quarter the size of the celebrated Meteor Crater in Arizona).
Dust storms on Mars gradually fill and obscure small craters and ejecta rays, so the younger the impact event, the more visible are rays and secondary small craters. Luckily, just two large craters on Mars have well-preserved rays that contain high densities of small secondary craters. Both of them lie on the Tharsis Plateau near the Martian Equator. This is a vast bulge on the planet’s surface – 5000 km across and rising to 7 km – characterised by three enormous shield volcanoes that rise to 18 km above the average elevation of Mars. The authors judge that one or the other crater is the source for shergottite meteorites, and that this meteorite class collectively samples the most recent igneous rocks that form the Tharsis Plateau. So vast is its mass, that the plateau has probably built-up over most of Mars’s history. One hypothesis is that the bulging has progressively developed over a huge thermal anomaly that has supported a mantle superplume for billions of years from which basaltic magma has steadily moved to the surface.
This model of a perpetual hot spot beneath Tharsis implies that the magmas that it has generated in the past have progressively depleted the underlying mantle in the incompatible trace elements that preferentially enter magma rather than remaining in solid minerals during partial melting. Having been able to suggest that the 575 to 150 Ma-old shergottites represent the upper crust of Tharsis that formed at that late stage in its history, Lagain et al. use those meteorites’ well-established trace-element geochemistry to test that hypothesis. They do indeed suggest their derivation by partial melting of mantle rocks that had in earlier times been strongly depleted in incompatible elements. One of the greatest mysteries about Mars’ evolution may have been resolved without the need for a crewed mission.