Shaking It Up: Planetary Tectonics Throughout the Solar System

Posted on Tue, March 16, 2010
  • by: Tom Watters, Senior Scientist of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies of the National Air and Space Museum

I first thought of putting together a book on planetary tectonics when I was working on a general subject matter book on the planets in the mid 1990’s.  That book had a “comparing the planets” section where I showed examples of tectonic landforms on Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.  Tectonic landforms are created when forces act on solid crustal material and they are found on objects of all sizes in the solar system.  The first step on the path to making Planetary Tectonics a reality was a topical session that my colleague and co-editor Rich Schultz and I chaired at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in November, 2000 in Reno, Nevada. Many of the speakers in that session contributed to chapters in the book.

Sheep Mountain Wyoming

Sheep Mountain

Sheep Mountain, Bighorn Basin, WY. View toward the southeast looking upstream, Bighorn River.  See Lovell-Greybull Area, Big Horn Co., WY, Department of Agriculture, Commodity Stabilization Service, 1961: Air photo BBN-3BB-110. (27Jun65). Source:  


Amenthes Rupes Thrust Fault on Mars

Amenthes Rupes Thrust Fault on Mars. Credit: NASA/Smithsonian.


Over the last decade, numerous planetary missions have returned new images and data on many solar system objects.  These include the NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, and the Cassini mission to Saturn.  The wealth of data from these and other missions greatly advanced our understanding of planetary tectonics during the time many of the chapters were in the process of being written.  As lead author on the Mercury chapter and a member of the MESSENGER science team, this proved to be both exciting and frustrating.  With three successful flybys of Mercury that coincided with the typesetting and proofing phase of the book, it was impossible to do justice to the sum of MESSENGER’s amazing new discoveries.

Less than a year into its mission, spectacular new images returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have already revealed previously undetected tectonic landforms that are changing our understanding of the geologic evolution of the Moon.  After entering into orbit in March, 2011, I expect MESSENGER will write a whole new chapter in the tectonics of Mercury.