NASA’s InSight lander detects space rocks as they crash into Mars

NASA's InSight lander detects space rocks as they crash into Mars

These seismic measurements give us a whole new tool to investigate Mars, NASA scientists have said.


Mars, due to its tenuous atmosphere and proximity to our solar system’s asteroid belt, is far more vulnerable than Earth to being hit by space rocks – one of many differences between the two neighboring planets.

Scientists are now gaining a better understanding of this Martian trait, with the help of NASA’s InSight robotic lander. Researchers described on Monday how InSight detected seismic and acoustic waves from the impact of four meteorites, then calculated the location of the craters they left – the first such measurements from anywhere other than Earth.

The researchers used observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in space to confirm the location of the craters.

“These seismic measurements give us a completely new tool to study Mars, or any other planet on which we can land a seismometer,” said planetary geophysicist Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, principal investigator of the InSight mission.

The space rocks tracked by InSight – one landing in 2020 and the other three in 2021 – were relatively modest in size, weighing up to about 440 pounds (200 kg), with diameters up to about 20 inches (50 cm) and leaving craters about 24 feet (7.2 meters) wide. They landed between 53 miles (85 km) and 180 miles (290 km) from InSight’s location. One exploded into at least three pieces which each dug their own craters.

“We can connect a known source type, location, and size to what the seismic signal looks like. We can apply this information to better understand InSight’s entire catalog of seismic events and also use the results on other planets and moons,” Brown said. Academic planetary scientist Ingrid Daubar, co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Geoscience

The researchers believe that now that the seismic signature of these impacts has been discovered, they expect to find more in InSight data, dating back to 2018.

The three-legged InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – landed in 2018 on a vast, relatively flat plain just north of the Martian equator called Elysium Planitia.

“The Moon is also a target for the future detection of meteor impacts,” said Raphael Garcia, planetary scientist and lead author of the study, from the Aeronautics and Space Institute ISAE-SUPAERO at the University of Toulouse.

“And it may be the same sensors that will, as InSight’s spare sensors are currently being integrated into the Farside Seismic Suite instrument for a flight to the moon in 2025,” Garcia added, referring to a instrument that must be placed near the lunar south pole on the side of the moon permanently facing away from Earth.

Mars is about twice as likely as Earth to have its atmosphere hit by a meteoroid – the name of a space rock before it hits the surface. However, Earth has a much thicker atmosphere that protects the planet.

“Thus, meteoroids usually break up and decay in the Earth’s atmosphere, forming fireballs that rarely reach the surface to form a crater. In comparison to Mars, hundreds of impact craters form some leaves the surface of the planet every year,” Daubar said.

The Martian atmosphere is only about 1% as thick as Earth’s. The asteroid belt, an abundant source of space rocks, is located between Mars and Jupiter.

The scientific goals set for InSight before the mission were to study the structure and internal processes of Mars, as well as to study seismic activity and meteor impacts.

InSight’s seismometer instrument has established that Mars is seismically active, detecting over 1,300 earthquakes. In research published last year, seismic waves detected by InSight helped decipher the internal structure of Mars, including early estimates of the size of its large liquid metal core, the thickness of its crust and the nature of his coat.

(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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