NASA’s InSight ‘Hears’ Its First Meteoroid Impacts on Mars

Insight Detects Meteor Impact and these craters were formed on Sept 5 2021. Captured by NASA's MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL Calthech/UoA
Insight Detects Meteor Impact and these craters were formed on Sept 5 2021. Captured by NASA's MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL Calthech/UoA
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NASA’s InSight lander has detected seismic waves from four space rocks that crashed on Mars in 2020 and 2021. Not only do these represent the first impacts detected by the spacecraft’s seismometer since InSight touched down on the Red Planet in 2018, it also marks the first time seismic and acoustic waves from an impact have been detected on Mars.

A new paper published Monday in Nature Geoscience details the impacts, which ranged between 53 and 180 miles (85 and 290 kilometers) from InSight’s location, a region of Mars called Elysium Planitia.

The first of the four confirmed meteoroids – the term used for space rocks before they hit the ground – made the most dramatic entrance: It entered Mars’ atmosphere on Sept. 5, 2021, exploding into at least three shards that each left a crater behind.

Then, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew over the estimated impact site to confirm the location. The orbiter used its black-and-white Context Camera to reveal three darkened spots on the surface. After locating these spots, the orbiter’s team used the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, or HiRISE, to get a color close-up of the craters (the meteoroid could have left additional craters in the surface, but they would be too small to see in HiRISE’s images).

(Listen to NASA’s InSight recording of an Earthquake on Mars)

“After three years of InSight waiting to detect an impact, those craters looked beautiful,” said Ingrid Daubar of Brown University, a co-author of the paper and a specialist in Mars impacts.

This collage shows three other meteoroid impacts that were detected by the seismometer on NASA’s InSight lander and captured by the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter using its HiRISE camera. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

This collage shows three other meteoroid impacts that were detected by the seismometer on NASA’s InSight lander and captured by the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter using its HiRISE camera. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

After combing through earlier data, scientists confirmed three other impacts had occurred on May 27, 2020; Feb. 18, 2021; and Aug. 31, 2021.

Researchers have puzzled over why they haven’t detected more meteoroid impacts on Mars. The Red Planet is next to the solar system’s main asteroid belt, which provides an ample supply of space rocks to scar the planet’s surface. Because Mars’ atmosphere is just 1% as thick as Earth’s, more meteoroids pass through it without disintegrating.

InSight’s seismometer has detected over 1,300 marsquakes. Provided by France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales, the instrument is so sensitive that it can detect seismic waves from thousands of miles away. But the Sept. 5, 2021, event marks the first time an impact was confirmed as the cause of such waves.

InSight’s team suspects that other impacts may have been obscured by noise from wind or by seasonal changes in the atmosphere. But now that the distinctive seismic signature of an impact on Mars has been discovered, scientists expect to find more hiding within InSight’s nearly four years of data.

Listen to a Meteoroid Hitting the Red Planet: The sound of a meteoroid striking Mars – created from data recorded by NASA’s InSight lander – is like a “bloop” due to a peculiar atmospheric effect. In this audio clip, the sound can be heard three times: when the meteoroid enters the Martian atmosphere, explodes into pieces, and impacts the surface. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP.

This article is reproduced from NASA InSight Mission Website

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.