NASA images show a meteor crashing into Mars, triggering a large earthquake and kicking up surprise water ice

an aerial image shows an impact crater on mars

An impact crater, formed on December 24, 2021, by a meteoroid strike in the Amazonis Planitia region of Mars. Water ice is visible around the rim of the crater.NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

  • NASA’s InSight lander felt a powerful earthquake on Mars. Then an orbiter took a picture of the meteor impact that caused it.

  • The impact kicked up boulders of water ice, which will be crucial for future astronaut missions to Mars.

  • The meteor quake could also help scientists unravel a centuries-old mystery.

A meteor crashed into Mars on Christmas Eve 2021 and shook the planet so much that NASA’s InSight lander recorded the rumbles.

Scientists didn’t know where the quake came from until NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft circling the Red Planet, captured images of the new impact crater. NASA revealed the discovery on Thursday.

“It was immediately clear that this was the largest new crater we had ever seen,” Ingrid Daubar, InSight’s chief impact scientist, said in a press briefing. “It’s about 500 feet wide or about two city blocks. And even though meteorites hit the planet all the time, this crater is more than 10 times larger than the typical new craters we see forming on Mars.”

Before and after comparison of the location of Amazonis Planitia on Mars.

Before and after comparison of the location of Amazonis Planitia on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Around the new crater, there was a telltale splinter: boulder-sized blocks of water ice, blasted below the surface during the explosion. This is the closest water to the Martian equator that NASA has ever found. Until now, scientists had only seen water ice clustered near the poles.

The discovery holds promise for NASA’s plan to one day send astronauts to Mars.

illustration shows astronauts using equipment on mars

In this illustration, NASA astronauts drill into the ground of Mars.Nasa

To avoid too hostile weather, NASA would prefer to land astronauts near the equator. But wherever these explorers go, they will need to extract water, both for basic human needs and to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen to provide rocket fuel for the return trip.

Mars’ meteor-impact earthquakes may help solve a centuries-old mystery

march hubble may 2016

The Hubble Space Telescope took this portrait of Mars on May 12, 2016.NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU) and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

Among the more than 1,300 earthquakes detected by InSight, scientists have identified another tremor originating from a meteor impact. Both meteors generated seismic waves at surface level – the first ever detected on another planet. Prior to these meteor impacts, all earthquakes detected by InSight originated from deep underground, producing what seismologists call “body waves”, rather than surface waves.

“It’s really exciting,” Doyeon Kim, a geophysicist at ETH Zurich, who analyzed the data from these earthquakes, told Insider, adding, “That was one of the goals of the mission, to detect and identify surface waves.”

Their findings about these meteorite impacts, published Thursday in two studies in the journal Science, could help solve an age-old mystery about the geography of Mars.

InSight mars lander

An artist’s rendering of the InSight lander on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

For almost as long as astronomers have studied Mars, they’ve wondered why its northern and southern hemispheres are so different. The north is made up of flat plains, while the south is full of mountains.

According to Kim, there are two main theories for this juxtaposition. The first is that the north and the south are made up of two different types of rock. The other is that the planet’s crust is simply thicker in the south. Whatever the answer, it would be another piece of the complex puzzle of how Mars formed, which is a model of how other rocky planets around other stars may have formed.

Surface waves from meteor impacts have given scientists a glimpse of the nearby Martian crust. It’s a small sample of the crust, so it can’t solve the North-South mystery on its own, but it fits into the second theory: that the crust is thicker in the south and thinner in the north.

“It only provides one or a small piece of evidence to start unraveling the mystery,” Kim said.

InSight is dying

two images of the Insight lander's circular solar panel show it clear and vibrant on the left and covered in dust on the right

InSight selfies from 2018, left, and 2022, right, show how much dust has accumulated on its solar panels.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Insight lander is ending its mission due to declining power levels and will likely run out of power within the next six weeks, NASA said.

“For the past four years, the lander has been collecting a lot of dust on its solar panels,” Bruce Barnerdt, the Insight mission’s lead investigator, said during a Thursday press briefing. “We kind of reduced spacecraft operations as it happened in order to extract as much scientific data as possible.”

A recent dust storm might have been the final nail in the coffin, but it bypassed InSight’s location. Yet it has filled the Martian atmosphere with dust particles, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the ground.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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