A space rock hits Mars, revealing buried ice

A space rock hits Mars, revealing buried ice

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Christmas came a little early for NASA’s InSight mission last December when it detected a strong earthquake on Mars.

Now scientists have found out why the red planet caused a stir. A meteoroid hit Mars 2,174 miles (3,500 kilometers) from the lander, creating a new impact crater on the Martian surface.

Earth moved under InSight on December 24, 2021, when the lander recorded a magnitude 4 Martian earthquake. Before-and-after photos taken from above by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting Mars since 2006, spotted the new crater last February.

Before and after photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show where the meteorite hit Mars on December 24, 2021.

When scientists connected the dots from the two missions, they realized it was one of the largest meteoroid impacts on Mars since NASA began exploring the red planet. Images from the orbiter’s two cameras showed the crater’s rupture zone, allowing scientists to compare it to the epicenter of the earthquake detected by InSight.

The journal Science published two new studies describing influence and its effects on Thursday.

When the space rock hit Mars, it also revealed rock-sized chunks of ice. They are buried closer to the warm Martian equator than any ice ever found on the planet.

Boulder-like pieces of ice can be seen scattered around and outside the rim of the new crater.

“The impact crater, the exposed ice and the dramatic blast zone preserved in the Martian dust were unlike anything I’ve seen before,” said Lilia Posiolova, director of orbital science operations for the Malin Space Science Orbiter. Systems in San Diego in a statement.

“I couldn’t imagine witnessing the impact, the atmospheric explosion and the debris being thrown from miles down.”

Studying the ice exposed by the impact will help scientists better understand the past climatic conditions on Mars, as well as how and when the ice was deposited and buried.

The researchers estimated that the meteoroid, or space rock, was about 16 to 39 feet (5 to 12 meters) high before it hit the ground. While this is small enough to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, the same cannot be said for Mars, whose thin atmosphere is only 1% denser than Earth’s.

When the meteorite hit Mars, it created a crater 492 feet (150 meters) wide and 70 feet (21 meters) deep in the Amazonis Planitia region of the planet. Some of the material that erupted from the crater landed 23 miles (37 kilometers) to the ground. Teams at NASA also recorded the sound of the impact, so you can hear the sound of the space rock hitting Mars.

The images taken by the orbiter, along with seismic data recorded by InSight, make the impact one of the largest craters ever observed in our solar system when it formed. Mars is full of large craters, but they are much older than any mission to explore the red planet.

“Finding a new impact of this size is unprecedented,” said Ingrid Daubar, the InSight impact science lead at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “This is an exciting moment in geologic history, and we have to witness it.”

If such an earthquake occurred on Earth, it would be “big enough to be felt, but not big enough to cause thousands of damage,” Daubar said. About 1,000 earthquakes of this size occur on Earth each year, but Mars is less active than our planet, so this one was “too big” for the red planet, he said.

The earthquake caused by the impact created surface waves, or seismic waves, that travel along the top of the Martian crust. InSight data from the event will help scientists study the planet’s crust and learn more about its structure.

Studying the craters and their rate of formation can help scientists determine the geological timeline of Mars. Impact craters also dig up material and bring it to the surface, like the ice detected during the December 24 strike.

Ice beneath the surface of Mars could be used by future astronauts for drinking water, rocket fuel, and even growing crops and plants. The fact that ice is found near the equator, the warmest region on Mars, could make it an ideal place to land crewed missions on the red planet.

Ago, InSight has “heard” and detected space rocks hitting Mars, but the impact in December was the biggest. Since landing in 2018, the mission has discovered 1,318 Martian earthquakes, revealing new information about Mars’ crust, mantle and core.

Unfortunately, the InSight mission is running out of time. Dust build-up on the lander’s solar panels was exacerbated by a continental dust storm detected on Mars in September, and its power levels continue to decline.

The beige clouds are a continent-sized dust storm captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on September 29.  The locations of the Persistence, Curiosity and InSight missions are also marked.

Fortunately, the storm did not directly pass InSight—otherwise, the storm’s darkness would have ended the mission. But the weather event kicked up a lot of dust into the atmosphere, and it reduced the amount of sunlight reaching InSight’s solar panels, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Mission scientists predict that InSight will shut down in the next six weeks, ending a promising mission to unlock the interior of Mars.

“For the last four years, we’ve exceeded the mission’s planned duration, which was two years,” Banerdt said. “Even now that we’re coming to an end, we’re still making amazing new discoveries.”

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