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Christmas came a little early for NASA’s InSight mission last December when the lander detected a massive earthquake on Mars.
Now scientists know what made the red planet rumble. A meteoroid slammed into Mars 3,500 kilometers from the lander and created a new impact crater on the Martian surface.
The ground literally shifted beneath InSight on December 24, 2021, when the lander recorded a magnitude 4 earthquake. Before and after photos taken from above by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling Mars since 2006 , spotted a new crater last February.
When scientists connected the dots from the two missions, they realized it was one of the biggest meteoroid strikes on Mars since NASA began studying the Red Planet. Images from the orbiter’s two cameras showed the crater blast area, allowing scientists to compare it with the epicenter of the earthquake detected by InSight.
The journal Science published two new studies on Thursday describing the impact and its effects.
The space rock also revealed boulder-sized chunks of ice when it slammed into Mars. They were found buried closer to the hot Martian equator than any ice ever detected on the planet.
“The impact image was unlike any I had seen before, with the massive crater, exposed ice, and dramatic blast zone preserved in Martian dust,” said operations manager Liliya Posiolova. orbital scientists for the orbiter at Malin Space Science. Systems in San Diego, in a statement.
“I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to witness the impact, the atmospheric explosion and the ejected debris miles away.”
Studying the ice revealed by the impact will help scientists better understand past climatic conditions on Mars, as well as how and when the ice was deposited and buried.
Researchers estimated the meteoroid, the name of a space rock before it hit the ground, to be about 16 to 39 feet (5 to 12 meters) tall. While this would have been small enough to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, the same cannot be said for Mars, which has a thin atmosphere only 1% as dense as Earth’s.
When the meteoroid crashed into Mars, it created a crater in the Amazonis Planitia region of the planet spanning 492 feet (150 meters) across and 70 feet (21 meters) deep. Some of the material expelled from the crater landed up to 37 kilometers away. NASA teams also captured the sound of the impact, so you can listen to what it sounds like when a space rock hits Mars.
Images captured by the orbiter, along with seismic data recorded by InSight, make the impact one of the largest craters in our solar system ever seen when it was created. Mars is littered with massive craters, but they are far older than any exploration mission to the Red Planet.
“It is unprecedented to find a new impact of this size,” Ingrid Daubar, InSight impact scientist lead at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said in a statement. “This is an exciting time in geological history, and we need to witness it.”
If an earthquake like this had happened on Earth, it would be “big enough to feel, but not big enough to cause a ton of damage,” Daubar said. About a thousand earthquakes of this size occur every year on Earth, but Mars is less active than our planet, so it was “a pretty big one” for the Red Planet, she said.
The earthquake that resulted from the impact also created surface waves, or a seismic wave that traveled along the top of the Martian crust. InSight’s data on the event will help scientists study the Earth’s crust and learn more about its structure.
Studying craters and their rate of formation can help scientists determine the geological timeline of Mars. Impact craters also dig into material and bring it to the surface, such as the ice revealed by the December 24 strike.
The ice below the Martian surface could be used for drinking water, rocket propellant, and even the cultivation of crops and plants by future astronauts. And the fact that the ice was found so close to the equator, the hottest region on Mars, could make it an ideal place to land crewed missions on the Red Planet.
Previously, InSight had “heard” and detected space rocks hitting Mars, but the December impact was the biggest. Since landing in 2018, the mission has revealed new details about Mars’ crust, mantle and core and detected 1,318 Marsquakes.
Unfortunately, InSight’s mission is running out of time. Growing amounts of dust have settled on the lander’s solar panels, only exacerbated by a continent-sized dust storm detected on Mars in September, and its power levels continue to drop.
Fortunately, the storm did not pass directly over InSight, otherwise the darkness of the storm would have ended the mission. But the weather event kicked up a lot of dust in the atmosphere and reduced the amount of sunlight reaching InSight’s solar arrays, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Washington. California.
Mission scientists believe InSight will likely shut down within the next six weeks, ending a promising mission to unlock Mars’ interior.
“Over the past four years, we have gone well beyond the expected life of the mission, which was two years,” Banerdt said. “And even now, as we draw to a close, we’re still getting these amazing new results.”
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