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NASA’s InSight Lander Detects Stunning Meteoroid Impact on Mars

During the hit, the agency's lander felt the ground tremble, and cameras on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter saw the gaping new crater from orbit.

Last December 24, a magnitude 4 mars quake was detected by NASA's InSight lander. Scientists only discovered the origin of the quake later: a meteoroid strike that was reportedly one of the largest to hit Mars since NASA first started exploring the cosmos.

A further revelation that has ramifications for NASA's future intentions to send astronauts to the Red Planet is that the meteoroid unearthed boulder-size shards of ice that were buried closer to the Martian equator than ever before.

Looking at before-and-after photographs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and spotting a new, gaping crater led scientists to conclude the earthquake was caused by a meteoroid hit. Two studies that were released on Thursday, October 27, in the journal Science provide a rare opportunity to observe how a significant impact rocked the ground on Mars.

The meteoroid, which was between 16 and 39 feet (5 and 12 meters) in size, would have burned up in Earth's atmosphere but not in Mars' thin atmosphere, which is only 1% as dense as Earth's. The impact created an approximately 492-foot (150-meter) wide by 70-foot (21-meter) deep crater in the Amazonis Planitia area of the moon. As much as 23 miles (37 kilometers) distant, some of the ejecta from the collision flew.

This is thought to be one of the largest craters that has ever been seen developing anywhere in the solar system, with pictures and seismic data documenting the process. On the Red Planet, there are other larger craters, but they are much older and predate any Mars missions.

As the head of InSight's Impact Science Working Group, Ingrid Daubar of Brown University noted, "It's unprecedented to identify a fresh impact of this level." "We got to witness it, and it's an incredible moment in geologic history."

Due to dust gathering on its solar panels in recent months, InSight has witnessed a sharp drop in output. The science of the project will now come to an end when the spacecraft shuts down within the next six weeks.

Planetary mantle, core, and crust are being investigated by InSight. The mission's main component, seismic waves have shown the dimensions, depths, and makeup of Mars' deep layers. A total of 1,318 mars quakes have been recorded since InSight's landing in November 2018, some of which were brought on by minor meteorite strikes.

However, the earthquake caused by the hit in December of last year was the first to be noted to feature surface waves, a type of seismic wave that ripples along the surface of a planet's crust. The second of the two Science articles about the large impact explains how researchers utilize these waves to examine the composition of Mars' crust.

Crater Hunters

The rest of the team was informed by InSight scientists in late 2021 that a significant mars quake had been discovered on December 24. Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), which developed and runs two cameras atop MRO, scientists first discovered the crater on February 11, 2022.

The Mars Color Imager (MARCI) creates daily maps of the entire planet while the Context Camera (CTX) captures medium-resolution black-and-white images, enabling researchers to monitor large-scale weather changes like the recent regional dust storm that significantly reduced InSight's solar power.

For improving the geologic history of the planet, it is essential to determine the pace at which craters occur on Mars. More craters can be found on older surfaces, like those of Mars and our Moon, than on Earth because of erosion and plate tectonics, which remove older features from the surface of our planet.

Additionally, newly formed craters reveal subsurface materials. The HiRISE color camera on the MRO was used to capture images of the huge chunks of ice that were thrown around by this collision.

Astronauts will need access to subsurface ice because they can use it to meet a number of demands, such as those for drinking water, agriculture, and rocket propellant. This close to the Martian equator, which is the warmest region of Mars and a desirable destination for humans, buried ice has never been discovered.

More About the Missions

For NASA's Science Mission Directorate, JPL is in charge of overseeing InSight and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, oversees the Discovery Program, which includes InSight. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the InSight spacecraft (including its cruise stage and lander), and the spacecraft operations for both missions were all built by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver.

The Context Camera and MARCI camera were built and are run by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. The HiRISE camera was created and is run by the University of Arizona.

The InSight mission is supported by a number of European partners, notably the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) of France. Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument from CNES was delivered to NASA, with IPGP as the lead researcher (Institute de Physique du Globe de Paris).

The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland, Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL all made significant contributions to SEIS. The Polish Space Research Center (CBK) and Astronika made major contributions to the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, which was given by DLR.

The temperature and wind sensors were provided by the Centro de Astrobiologa (CAB) of Spain, while the passive laser retroreflector was provided by the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

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