Researchers from Curtin University have helped discover the largest fresh meteorite impact craters on Mars since NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began scanning the planet for them 16 years ago.
On December 24, 2021, NASA’s InSight Lander recorded a magnitude five earthquake that was recently discovered to have been caused by a meteorite impact. One of the meteorites excavated contained ice at the lowest altitude ever observed on the planet, a breakthrough for NASA’s future exploration plans.
The discovery was helped by two Curtin University scientists, the only two Australians on the international NASA-led research team. The research entitled “The Largest Recent Impact Craters on Mars: Orbital Imaging and Surface Seismic Co-Investigation”, was published in the magazine Science.
Discovering craters with NASA technology
The meteorite is estimated to have spanned 16-39 feet, paving the way for the rare discovery of two impact craters, both more than 130 meters in diameter each. The craters, believed to be among the largest ever to form in the solar system, were detected using NASA imaging technology and seismometers. Larger boxes exist on Mars, but these precede any mission to the planet.
Research co-author Associate Professor Katarina Miljkovic, from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Center and the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said: “In addition to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imager, the NASA InSight seismometers were operating in the second half of 2021. when these effects were recorded.
“They have detected these impact events in the form of large seismic activity, or ‘bangs,’ first as the meteorite passed through the atmosphere and then again as it hit the ground.
“Impact events happen all the time on both Earth and Mars, but they generally involve small rocks from space that just graze the atmosphere. “Occasionally, we get shocks that can penetrate deeper into the atmosphere to form a noticeable bang in the atmosphere or on the ground, as happened here.”
The importance of studying meteor impact events
The size of the meteor impact, which occurred in an area called Amazonis Planitia, caused the only two earthquakes known to have been caused by it, said study co-author PhD student Andrea Rajšić, who completed the research while at the Curtin’s Space. Center for Science and Technology.
The earthquake caused by this impact is the first to have surface waves rippling through the planet’s crust.
“Not many large earthquakes have been detected on Mars, either due to internal geological forces or in this case external impacts, but when they do, they help map the deeper interior of Mars,” Rajšić said.
“Impact events are extremely useful in seismology because they can be thought of as a confined seismic source with a known location. This is a fantastic way to take a look at the internal structure of the Red Planet.”
One of the meteor impacts had excavated large chunks of ice buried closer to Mars’ equator than ever before. These findings will contribute to our current understanding of Mars’ water reservoir.
Associate Professor Miljkovic said: “This knowledge is useful for many reasons, from the possible future habitation of Mars by humans and their ability to locate water as a resource, to the fundamental understanding of the structure of Mars as a planet. If we want to understand the formation and evolution of our own planet, we will have to understand other terrestrial planets as well.”
Dr Rajšić completed her PhD studies contributing to this work at the Center for Space Science and Technology at Curtin. Curtin’s part of this research was funded by the Australian Research Council.
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