"The shell is broken and is moving horizontally over a long distance. It is very similar to the Earth's Dead Sea fault system, which has also opened up and is moving horizontally."
The two plates divided by Mars' Valles Marineris have moved approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other, Yin said. California's San Andreas Fault, which is over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much — but the Earth is about twice the size of Mars, so Yin said they are comparable.
Yin, whose research is partly funded by the National Science Foundation, calls the two plates on Mars the Valles Marineris North and the Valles Marineris South.
"Earth has a very broken 'egg shell,' so its surface has many plates; Mars' is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it," Yin said. "This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth."
Mars has landslides, and Yin said a fault is shifting the landslides, moving them from their source.
Does Yin think there are Mars-quakes?
"I think so," he said. "I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more."
Yin is very confident in his findings, but mysteries remain, he said, including how far beneath the surface the plates are located.
"I don't quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics," Yin said. "The rate is much slower than on Earth."
The Earth has a broken shell with seven major plates; pieces of the shell move, and one plate may move over another. Yin is doubtful that Mars has more than two plates.
"We have been able to identify only the two plates," he said. "For the other areas on Mars, I think the chances are very, very small. I don't see any other major crack."
Did the movement of Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South create the enormous canyons on Mars? What led to the creation of plate tectonics on Earth?
Yin, who will continue to study plate tectonics on Mars, will answer those questions in a follow-up paper that he also plans to publish in the journal Lithosphere.