Space rocks smashed into Mars, forming a crater that revealed pieces of ice | CNN

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Christmas came a little early on NASA’s InSight mission last December when the rover detected a massive earthquake on Mars.

Now, scientists know why the Red Planet is roaring. A meteorite struck Mars 2,174 miles (3,500 km) from the probe and created a new impact crater on the surface of Mars.

Earth literally moved below InSight on December 24, 2021, when the probe recorded an earthquake measuring 4 on the Richter scale. Before and after images captured from above by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting Mars since 2006, spotted a new crater last February.

When scientists connected the dots from both missions, they realized it was one of the largest meteor strikes on Mars since NASA began studying the Red Planet. Images from the orbiter’s two cameras showed the crater’s eruption zone, allowing scientists to compare it to the epicenter of the earthquake detected by Insight.

Science published two new studies describing the effect and its effects on Thursday.

The space rocks also revealed ice chunks the size of rocks when they collided with Mars. They have been found buried near the warm Martian equator out of any ice that has been discovered on the planet.

Ice blocks the size of a boulder can be seen scattered around the edge of the new crater and beyond.

Lilia Busiulova, orbital science operations lead for the orbiter at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, said in a statement.

“I can only imagine what it must have been like to witness the impact, the blast in the atmosphere, and debris ejected 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.

The researchers estimated that the meteorite, the name of a space rock before it hit Earth, was 16 to 39 feet (5 to 12 meters) across. While this may be small enough to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, the same can’t be said for Mars, which has an atmosphere as thin as only 1% as dense as Earth’s.

When the meteorite struck Mars, it created a crater in the planet’s Amazonis Planetia region, spanning 492 feet (150 meters) wide and 70 feet (21 meters) deep. Some of the material that exploded fell from the crater 23 miles (37 kilometers) away. NASA teams also picked up the sound from the impact, so you can hear what it sounds like when a space rock hits Mars.

Images taken by the orbiter, along with seismic data recorded by InSight, make the impact one of the largest craters in our solar system ever seen during its creation. Mars is full of massive craters, but they are much older than any mission to explore the Red Planet.

“It’s unprecedented to find a new effect of this magnitude,” Ingrid Dubard, head of impact science at InSight at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said in a statement. “It’s an exciting moment in geological history, and we have to witness it.”

If an earthquake like this occurred on Earth, Dubar said, it would be “large enough to be felt, but not large enough to cause much damage.” She said about a thousand earthquakes of this size occur on Earth every year, but Mars is less active than our planet, so it was a “very big earthquake” for the red planet.

The earthquake that resulted from the impact also caused surface waves, or seismic wave, that moved along the top of Mars’ crust. InSight data from the event will help scientists study the planet’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 up material and bring it to the surface, such as ice revealed by the December 24 strike.

Ice beneath the surface of Mars could be used for drinking water, rocket propulsion, and even the cultivation of crops and plants by future astronauts. And the fact that the ice has been found near the equator, the warmest region on Mars, may make it an ideal place to land manned missions to the Red Planet.

Previously, Insight “heard” and discovered space rocks hitting Mars, but December’s impact was the biggest. Since landing in 2018, the mission has revealed new details about Mars’ crust, mantle and core and detected 1,318 earthquakes.

Unfortunately, time is running out for the InSight mission. Increasing amounts of dust have settled on the lander’s solar panels, exacerbated only by a continent-sized dust storm discovered on Mars in September, and its energy levels continue to decline.

Beige clouds are a continent-sized dust storm photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on September 29.  The Perseverance, Curiosity, and InSight mission sites were also ranked.

Fortunately, the storm didn’t pass through InSight directly – otherwise the darkness of the storm would have done the job. The weather event caused a lot of dust to be released into the atmosphere, and reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Insight’s solar panels, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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

“Over the past four years, we’ve gone well beyond the mission’s life expectancy, which was two years,” Bannerdt said. “And even now that we’re almost done, we’re still getting these amazing new results.”

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