For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet's surface, also exists on Mars.

"Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth," said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from a NASA spacecraft known as THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images — approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics.

Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of the Earth's seven major plates divide.* "When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology," said Yin, a planetary geologist.

For example, he saw a very smooth, flat side of a canyon wall, which can be generated only by a fault, and a steep cliff, comparable to cliffs in California's Death Valley, which also are generated by a fault. Mars has a linear volcanic zone, which Yin said is a typical product of plate tectonics.

"You don't see these features anywhere else on other planets in our solar system, other than Earth and Mars," said Yin, whose research is featured as the cover story in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere.