Meteorite that smashed into Mars shook planet, Nasa says

Blocks of ice were spewed up onto Mars' surface around a 150m wide and 21m deep hole. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON – Scientists who study Mars on Thursday revealed the remarkable Christmas gift they received from the planet last year.

On Dec 24, 2021, a meteorite hit Mars’ surface, triggering magnitude 4 tremors that were detected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) InSight spacecraft, which landed on the planet four years ago, some 3,500km away.

The true origin of this so-called marsquake was confirmed only when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was able to take a picture of the newly formed crater created by the hit when it flew over the impact site less than 24 hours later.

The image is impressive, showing blocks of ice that were spewed up onto the planet’s surface around the 150m wide and 21m deep hole.

The crater is the largest observed since the MRO began its Mars orbit 16 years ago.

And though meteorite impacts on Mars are not rare, “we never thought we’d see anything that big”, Dr Ingrid Daubar, who works on the InSight and MRO missions, told reporters on Thursday.

Researchers estimate that the meteorite itself would have measured between 4.9m to 12m across. An object of that size would have disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere before falling to the ground here.

“It is simply the biggest meteorite impact on the ground that we have heard since science has been done with seismographs or seismometers,” said planetology professor Philippe Lognonne, who participated in two studies related to the observation published in the Science journal on Thursday.

Nasa released an audio recording of the collision, which was made by speeding up the vibrations collected by the seismometer.

The valuable information gathered in studying the crash will contribute to deeper knowledge of Mars’ interior and the history of how the planet was created, scientists said.

The presence of ice, in particular, is “surprising”, said Dr Daubar, who also co-authored the two studies.

“This is the warmest spot on Mars, the closest to the equator, we’ve ever seen water ice,” she added.

In addition to the information this discovery offers about the Martian climate, the presence of water at this latitude – and not just near the poles – could prove “really useful” for future human visitors to Mars, said Dr Lori Glaze, director of Nasa’s Planetary Science Division.

“We’d want to land the astronauts as near to the equator as possible,” she added, to take advantage of warmer temperatures.

“That ice could be converted into water, oxygen or hydrogen,” Dr Glaze said.

The impact was powerful enough to generate seismic waves both down to the planet’s core and across its crust horizontally, making it possible to study Mars’ internal structure, revealing that the crust on which InSight sits is less dense than the crust the waves travelled over from the crater site.

The end of InSight’s mission, which recorded more than 1,300 marsquakes in total, could come in the next couple of months, according to Dr Bruce Banerdt from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab, due to the expected accumulation of dust on the lander’s solar power panel.

It’s “sad”, he said, while celebrating that the probe worked “marvelously” for four years. AFP

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