The surface of Mars
Another prominent feature of Mars’s surface is cratering. The Mariner spacecraft found that the surface of Mars, as well as that of its two moons, is pitted with impact craters formed by meteoroids falling in from space. As on our Moon, the smaller craters are often filled with surface matter-mostly dust-confirming that Mars is a dry desert world. However, Martian craters get filled in considerably faster than their lunar counterparts. On the Moon, ancient craters less than 100 meters across (corresponding to depths of about 20 meters) have been obliterated, primarily by meteoritic erosion. On Mars, there are relatively few craters less than 5 kilometers in diameter. The Martian atmosphere is an efficient erosive agent, with Martian winds transporting dust from place to place and erasing surface features much faster than meteoritic impacts alone can obliterate them.
As on the Moon, the extent of large impact cratering (i.e. craters too big to have been filled in by erosion since they were formed) serves as an age indicator for the Martian surface. Age estimates ranging from four billion years for Mars’s southern highlands to a few hundred million years in the youngest volcanic areas were obtained in this way.
The detailed appearance of Martian impact craters provides an important piece of information about conditions just below the planet’s surface. Martian craters are surrounded by ejecta (debris formed as a result of an impact) that looks quite different from its lunar counterparts. A comparison of the Copernicus crater on the Moon with the (fairly typical) crater Yuty on Mars demonstrates the differences. The ejecta surrounding the lunar crater is just what one would expect from an explosion ejecting a large volume of dust, soil, and boulders. However, the ejecta on Mars gives the distinct impression of a liquid that has splashed or flowed out of crater. Geologists think that this fluidized ejecta crater indicates that a layer of permafrost, or water ice, lies just a few meters under the surface. Explosive impacts heated and liquefied the ice, resulting in the fluid appearance of the ejecta.