Skiing Exotic Volcanoes - The Final Frontier - Olympus Mons, Mars

Skiing Exotic Volcanoes - The Final Frontier - Olympus Mons, Mars


Skiing Exotic Volcanoes - The Final Frontier - Olympus Mons, Mars


Terragen rendering of Olympus Mons, by Kees Veenenbos

For the final installment in the series “skiing Exotic volcanoes” we’re going to have to reach a little deeper into our pockets for this journey of the mind. This week, we’re going to blast off into outer space, and fly to Mars to ski the tallest volcano in the Solar System and the largest mountain within a few hundred billion miles of Earth – the enormous shield volcano Olympus Mons on the Red Planet of Mars.

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, and is about half as large as our planet. Mars has 11% of the density of Earth, which correlates to a much lower gravity than that found here. If you weighed 200lbs on Earth, you would only weigh 75 lbs on Mars. Imagine the air you could catch! Tanner Hall would probably boost so high off a kicker that he would leave the planet, fly through space, and ollie off the rings of Saturn right into the sun.

Rendering of what Olympus Mons would look like from the base of the volcano. By Tio Marimirtie

Mars has an atmosphere that is far less dense than Earth’s. Pressures on the planet range from around 0.030 kPa atop Olympus Mons to as much as 1.115 kPa in the Hellas Planitia, with an average of 0.60 kPa. At it’s thickest, the atmosphere of Mars would be equivalent to that found at about 3.7 miles above the top of Mount Everest.

The distance between Mars and Earth varies as the two planets hurtle through space around the sun. When the red planet is closest to us, it is in what’s called “close approach.” This distance varies due to the eccentricity of the orbits, and can be as close as 54 million km (33 million miles) and as much as 100 million km (62 million miles).

The most recent close approach was August 27th, 2003, when Mars came within ~56 million km (~35 million miles). The next time will be in the year 2287, when Squaw will finally be connected to Kirkwood. Space travellers take note – these periods of close approach are when you need to time your flight to Mars, but you better study up on your planetary mechanics, because you have to leave earth several months in advance of the approach date to time your arrival right.

Just how big is Olympus Mons? About as big as the entire state of Arizona. The volcano is approximately 624 km around at it’s base, or 387 miles. Ringing the volcano is a 6km / 4 mile high wall of rock. Mons towers over 25 km / 15.5 miles above the surrounding landscape. Compared to Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on earth, Olympus Mons isn’t even in the same league. Mons is 100 times larger, and the entire chain of Hawaiian Islands would be engulfed by it.

Geologic Background and Eruptive History.

The vast majority of the surface of Mars is covered in red dust that is rich in iron oxide, having resulted from the weathering of tholeiitic basalt. This rock type is found in abundance on Earth, where it is erupted from our mid-ocean ridges to form our seafloor. The most notable parts of Mars that aren’t red are the planets polar ice caps, which consist of a mixture of 15% water and 85% carbon dioxide ice.

Like Earth, Mars consists of crustal rock plates that overlie lighter, hotter, more fluid rocks. Volcanoes on Mars are very similar in form to hot spot volcanoes on Earth (the Hawaiian islands, Iceland, etc). A major difference however is the fact that the crustal plates on the red planet don’t move like ours do, so the volcanoes on Mars grow to monstrous sizes since the fountain of lava from below remains in the same spot.

Computer-generated model of the surface of Olympus Mons' summit caldera wall, from the European Space Agency.

Olympus Mons consists of layer upon layer upon layer of basalt that was erupted over the aeons and piled up to give the mountain it’s great height. The thinner atmosphere and lower gravity mean that lava flows gush out faster, and reach longer than they would on Earth. This has aided the volcano in growing to it’s enormous bulk.

At the summit of the volcano lie a nested suite of at least six discrete calderas, very similar to those found at the top of Hawai`i’s Mauna Loa. Each caldera represents one collapsed magma chamber, which released a flood of basaltic lava when it was emptied.

Olympus Mons is thought to be dormant, and not extinct. Ages of the flows visible on the northwestern surface of the volcano are inferred to be between 115 and 2 million years in age, based on observations made in 2004 by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. Though this might seem like a very very long time ago, in geologic time it’s barely a few “hours” in the past.

Intriguingly, if Mons does harbor geothermal heat and at one point was covered by glaciers, then somewhere deep in the volcano could lie pockets of warm water that could potentially harbor microbial life.

Space Exploration of Mars

NASA has been flying missions to Mars since the late 1960s. When Viking 1 and 2 beamed back the first color images of the Red Planet in 1978 and 1979, they also relayed mapping data that allowed scientists to piece together the geography of the planet. Sadly for those who thought that they were seeing surface water running in canals constructed by Martians, the beginning of the period of Mars exploration marked the end of the theories of extraterrestrial life that had dominated the public’s imagination from the 19th century.

View from the Rover Spirit, from NASA

NASA has achieved some remarkable things during it’s voyages to Mars. Most notable are the two twin rovers Spirit and opportunity of the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Originally sent to Mars in 2003 and designed to last just a few months, Spirit stopped working just last year and Opportunity is still actively roving around Mars returning incredible images and scientific data.

Check out this timelapse video constructed from thousands of images taken by Spirit:

And this nerdtacular video describing the wonder that is Opportunity:

Some of NASA’s missions were not as successful as others. Popular Science listed it’s “top 10 failed NASA missions” of which more than a few are Mars missions. The Polar Lander’s loss in 1997 was eclipsed in failure magnitude by the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998. Subcontractor Lockheed Martin wrote software to control the probe’s descent into the Martian atmosphere in feet, whereas NASA’s software used meters. As a result, the probe blasted through the atmosphere at an incorrect angle of descent, burning up on entry. Hope someone got detention for that one!

NASA has an SUV-size probe currently en route to Mars, due to arrive this August. The Curiosity rover will seek out areas of Mars thought to be likely candidates for once harboring life. The rover will use a sophisticated package of instruments to try to definitively answer that question of questions – has there ever been life on another planet?

Curiosity Rover, from NASA



Unlike some of the other volcanoes I’ve written about, on Olympus Mons, you’re guaranteed a first descent. Now here comes the bad news – the average slope on the flanks of Mons is a measly 5 degrees. With the weak gravity, you’d have a really hard time getting started.

Olympus Mons is so big, and mars so much smaller than earth, that even if you made it to the summit and looked out, you wouldn’t be able to see the base of the volcano, as it would stretch out to the visible horizon.

Terrain on Mars, from NASA

To continue raining on your parade, there isn’t much snow up there either. The majority of the snow and ice currently found on the Red planet is at the poles, locked up in vast ice caps.
According to data gathered by the European Space Agency in 2005, the Western Scarp of the summit of Mons caldera hows evidence of ice/snow and water. On the eastern flank of the volcano, eruptions beneath glaciers of water caused rapid melting of the ice sheets, which released torrents of water down the slopes, carving deep canyons as recently as 20 million years ago.

As far as equipment, you had better be riding on the 2012 Elan Olympus Mons skis or you risk angering any Martians you come across that have an insatiable thirst for human blood.

Access Beta

To get to Mars, you’re gonna have to hitch a ride on a rocket ship, or build your own vessel. Richard Branson‘s Virgin Galactic is one of the primary commercial space flight operators. Their ship, Space Ship Two, is a carbon-fiber glider capable of carrying six people and two pilots safely back from the edge of space, where it is launched by the Virgin Mothership Eve.

A seat on Virgin’s Spaceship Two will run you a cool $200,000, with a $20,000 deposit due up front. Spaceship Two won’t technically get you into outer space, but to an altitude of 360,000 feet. That’s a far cry from the millions of miles and three months you would need to endure to get to mars to even start your journey to the top of Olympus Mons.

Virgin Galactic spaceships

Financing is another problem. The Curiosity mission has a price tag of a whopping 2.5 billion dollars. You would probably need upwards of at least ten times that to get a human to Mars.

Even if you got there, temperatures vary from -125 F to 86 F, and the atmosphere is unbreathable carbon dioxide. Worse, Mars is subject to plant-wide dust storms that can rage for months. Imagine the worst days at Burning Man, but without the topless margarita bars and dubstep to weather the storms by. Unimaginable!

The logistics required to mount a successful ski trip to Mars are insurmountable. Manned missions to the planet are probably 50+ years out. So your dream of slashing turns down carbon dioxide glaciers in the shadowy walls of the craters at the summit of Olympus Mons are going to have to remain in the realm of dreams.

Thanks for your interest in this series of articles. I have enjoyed writing them and reading your comments. Next week I’m going to return to covering various science-related topics, starting ff with an in-depth look at the phenomenon of Auroras.

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