Last year, on December 24, NASA’s InSight lander detected a magnitude 4 marsquake, which initially didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. Only later did NASA learn that this particular marsquake was quite remarkable, caused by one of the largest meteoroid strikes that NASA has ever seen on Mars.
Technological collaboration made this discovery possible
NASA scientists weren’t able to determine that a meteoroid caused last year’s marsquake solely using the data collected by the InSight lander; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) played a crucial role as well. Later, after detecting the marsquake, the MRO photographed a new, rather large crater left by a meteoroid strike. Using this new data from the MRO, NASA was able to conclude that the meteoroid impact was the cause of the marsquake detected by the InSight lander earlier on.
One of the many instruments the MRO has onboard is the Mars Color Imager (MARCI), which constructs daily maps of Mars in its entirety. This instrument is what first showed the fresh impact zone that caught scientists’ attention, as the impact was not previously present. It allowed NASA to crosscheck the seismic data collected by the InSight lander.
The MRO’s imaging of the impact area showed that it occurred in the Amazonis Planitia region of Mars. It also allowed scientists to estimate the meteoroid to have spanned somewhere between 16 to 39 feet across. NASA pointed out that a meteoroid of this size hurtling toward Earth would burn up in the atmosphere long before impacting the surface. On the other hand, Mars has a significantly thinner atmosphere than Earth, allowing a meteoroid of that size to easily reach the Martian surface.
Another extraordinary aspect of this impact is that it ejected what NASA calls “boulder-size chunks of ice” around the immediate area. Sure, it’s been known that water ice has existed on Mars for some time, but this is the closest that ice has ever been discovered to Mars’ equator. A discovery that NASA points out could affect the agency’s future crewed missions to Mars. Ice like this could potentially provide crews with many different uses once on the surface, such as drinking water and manufacturing rocket fuel for return trips.
The InSight lander is finally on its last leg
Today, while discussing the meteoroid impact on Mars, NASA also provided the public with an update on the InSight lander. The agency reminded us that the lander has been operating on the Martian surface since November 2018 and was originally only expected to remain operational for two years. Yet here we are in 2022, four years later, and InSight is still contributing to scientific advancements. Sadly, NASA did go on to state that InSight will likely cease to operate in just a few short months due to its solar panels being coated in a thick layer of Martian dust.
Since landing on the surface of Mars four years ago, InSight has detected 1,318 marsquakes, many of which were caused by other smaller meteoroid impacts.