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Olympus Mons: Facts, Height, & Quiz

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Taught by

Katie Koning

Katie has a PhD in Microbiology and has experience preparing online education content in Biology and Earth Science.

If Mars is ever open for tourism, Earth's mountain climbers might be the first to sign up. In this lesson, you will get all the little details about Mars's big beast of a mountain, Olympus Mons.

Mars

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the direct neighbor of Earth. It was named after the Roman god of war, and it has been captivating astronomers for thousands of years. Its surface is covered in an iron rich regolith (loose rock and dust) that is the source of its nickname, The Red Planet.

Mars is peppered with many amazing surface features such as volcanoes and valleys. It is the home to the impressive Valles Marineris system of canyons. It is also the site of four giant shield volcanoes: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, Ascraeus Mons, and Olympus Mons.

Olympus Mons
Olympus Mons

History of Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons was described by astronomers as far back as the 19th century.The Olympus name comes from the mountain home of the 12 Greek gods. It was Giovanni Schiaparelli who first named it Nix Olympica (snows of Olympus) in 1879 when he observed it as a light colored spot. The name was later changed to Olympius Mons later when it was better visualized and determined to be a volcano.

Appearance

Olympus Mons is a shield volcano with very broad gradual slopes created by lava flows. It is 22 km higher than the surrounding plains area (27km from the average surface height on Mars) and 550 km wide. Think of it as being the size of the state of Arizona, but three times higher than Mt. Everest. The crater at the top is 80 km long and is actually a complex of six craters that spans 60 km wide and 3 km deep. The broad slopes abruptly end in cliffs that are 6 km tall.

Topography map of Olympus Mons
Topography map of Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons holds the title for tallest mountain in the solar system, and it is the second tallest mountain in the Universe. It likely became so large because Mars does not have tectonic plates. Therefore, the lava was likely able to flow outwards from a hotspot in the same place for quite a long time with no crust shifts to impede it.

The volcano is located in Mars's western hemisphere near the uplifted Tharsis bulge region. Since Mars is a small planet, and the slopes of Olympus Mons are so gradual, the edge of the volcano cannot be seen as it extends further than the horizon. Olympus Mons is so tall that it is often the only thing visibly protruding through Mars's massive dust storms.

Age

Images taken with the Express Orbiter in 2004 helped to assess the age of Olympus Mons through crater analysis. The number of craters suggests that areas of Olympus Mons range in age from approximately 2 million-115 million years old. Since 2 million years is relatively recent, there may still be activity beneath the surface and more eruptions may be seen in our future.

Olympus Mons
Olympus Mons

Other Giants

Rheasilvia, which is located on the giant asteroid 4 Vesta, is the only known mountain that is taller than Olympus Mons. It stands 23 km above its surrounding terrain, which is only slightly higher than its Martian competitor. In comparison with Earth, Olympus Mons can be measured against a giant shield volcano in Hawaii, Mauna Kea. As Mauna Kea stems from the sea floor, it is not often thought of as a giant mountain, but it is 10.2 km tall as measured from base to summit.

Rocks from Mars

There are two large impact craters on Olympus Mons: the Karzok crater and the Pangboche crater. These two sites are suspected to be the birthplaces of several meteorites that have landed here on Earth (based on composition analysis). So, until Earthlings are allowed to visit Olympus Mons, they can try to find a little bit of it here on Earth.

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