March is bad.
A small space rock recently crashed on the surface of the red planet, producing a new crater that researchers estimate is between 15 and 16 meters wide.
The dramatic function is clearly visible in a newly released NASA image Marking Orbiter March (MRO). The spacecraft has been photographing the red planet for over 13 years using its HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera and has photographed larger expanses of terrain with its lower contextual camera (CTX). resolution.
Related: Last photos of the reconnaissance orbiter on Mars from NASA
A color image of HiRISE, posted on June 6 and taken in April, shows a large bruise in black and blue on the landscape in the middle of an otherwise flat area of red martian earth.
Because MRO can not look everywhere at once, it is unclear exactly when the new crater is formed; The best estimate is between September 2016 and February 2019, scientists said.
While MRO captures hundreds of these new black spots a year, said Veronica Bray, a member of the HiRISE team and scientist at the University of Arizona staff, this new crater is one of the biggest aspects of those she saw. This means that the impact that created it was a fairly rare event, at least as far as we know, after 13 years of continuous observation by MRO.
Bray estimated that the responsible strike element had a width of about 1.5 m (5 feet) – so small that it would have shattered or completely erode itself. he had gone through the much thicker atmosphere of the Earth. The impactor could have been a rock stronger than usual, she added, because other rocks The atmosphere of Mars often break very high in the air and create chains of craters when fragmented pieces fall on the ground.
"It's a reminder of what's going on," said SpaceRight Bray, a HiRISE targeting specialist who has imaged this new crater. She said that March is a dynamic place, with shifting sand dunes and swirling devils, but finds craters to be the most interesting surface features of the red planet.
"It's a magnificent [crater]. I'm glad to have it in the color band, "she said.
KABOOM! Before and after images of a meteorite forming a brand new crater impact on Mars. Between February 18, 2017 and March 20, 2019. pic.twitter.com/TWXtUoP5NAJune 12, 2019
Bray added that the color of this crater fascinates her because she can clearly see the wave of impact – a dark area where dust has moved from the surface. Underneath is probably basaltic rock, based on what we know about the geology of Mars and the colors shown in the image. There are also tinted areas of bluish that can be exposed to ice or not. While the crater was dynamited in the Valles Marineris In the region, near the relatively hot Martian equator, it is possible that there is some ice under the dust, Bray said.
She noted, however, that no recent spectroscopy in the region was available (to her knowledge) via another MRO instrument called CRISM (Compact Recognition Imaging Spectrometer for Mars).
Although CRISM gives a picture of the region, there will be obstacles to finding out more about the nature of the minerals in the area, said Bray. This 13 year old instrument, which works well beyond its theoretical life, ran out of coolant a long time ago and has a lower resolution than it did in the beginning. In the best case, the crater could occupy a pixel of the CRISM image. (CRISM has a resolution of about 52 feet or 16 meters per pixel, while that of HiRISE is 0.8 feet or 25 centimeters per pixel.)
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Peter Grindrod, Mars researcher, ExoMars program scientist and planetary scientist at the Natural History Museum in London, posted a GIF on Twitter Wednesday (June 12th) showing "before" and "after" photos in low resolution of CTX, as well as a map of height showing the crater compared to the flat ground that surrounds it. (He generated the height map by running HiRISE photos via commercial software.)
Grindrod said that he regularly published pictures of Mars on his wire just out of interest, often when he was about to give a public or scientific talk about the red planet. In this case, the crater really caught his attention:
"That kind of thing blew me up," he told Space.com, referring to the size of the new crater. "I had never seen anything like it."
Related: 7 biggest mysteries of Mars
He added that this work is only possible because HiRISE provides a large part of its data in an open manner, which makes it possible to republish and modify the images for interested scientists or members of the public who wish to know more on Mars.
"All we do is open data, and we give it as much as we can," he said of space researchers, adding that scientists participating in the mission often participated. to a brief period with exclusive access to data in order to publish their own first discoveries.
Although Grindrod is not part of the HiRISE team, he is a regular contributor to Digital Terrain Model Archives on the HiRISE Website because he likes to generate pitch maps, he said. These show the Martian features in the context of the surrounding terrain, helping to give a geological context to features such as dust devils or craters.
Prepare for more work on Mars
Space ships continue to join the venerable MRO on and around the red planet. Grindrod has several affiliations with ExoMars, the British and Russian two-phase robotic exploration program.
For example, he is a guest investigator with ExoMars Orbiter of gas traces, who arrived on the red planet in 2016. Grindrod is studying "active processes" such as devils and dunes of dust. The before-after images are excellent for studying these temporary phenomena, he explained. That's why he was inspired to create the GIF for the new crater.
TGO is at the heart of the first phase of ExoMars. The second phase is centered on a rover named Rosalind Franklin, which is scheduled to launch in July 2020 and landed in February 2021. The Grindrod team generated pitch maps for dozens of proposed ExoMars landing sites, while scientists discussed where to go. . He then provided these maps to the HiRISE group for publication on their website.
"We gave it to everyone who wanted it," he said. These pitch maps helped show potential sites for water to researchers, an important element for the search for habitable environments, he explained.
In addition, Grindrod participated in several field tests of the ExoMars rover between 2018 and 2019. A test rover was put to the test in Utah in Spain and the Atacama Desert in New York. Chile in three separate trials, each attempt becoming more complex and closer to reality. the case will be like on Mars.
Grindrod is also a member of Rosalind Franklin's team of panoramic cameras, which will provide a geological context as a tenant looking for signs of life on the red planet. As life as we know it requires liquid water, researchers looking for habitable environments usually tend to look for formations (like clay) or minerals (like hematite) which usually form in the presence of water.