New craters on Mars might hold clues about the planet’s atmosphere and evolution

By Raquel Santos

An international team of researchers located four new impact craters on the surface of Mars. Using a seismometer and images captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the team was able to pinpoint the location of these craters.

Impact Craters
(Image of the four new craters by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona)

This is the first time investigators were able to capture impact dynamics on Mars. Such information might hold valuable clues regarding the planet’s atmosphere and internal structure. It might also give us some insight into how our planetary neighbor formed and evolved over time.

Martian Meteoric Exploration

Mars is located nearby our solar system’s asteroid belt. The proximity between the two and Mars’ flimsy atmosphere makes it vulnerable to impacts by space rocks. Even though we know the repercussions of a meteoroid’s impact here on Earth, researchers were never quite able to figure out impact dynamics on Mars.

“Meteoroids and other projectiles in space can change the atmosphere and surface of any planet through impact,” said Nicholas Schmerr, a co-author of the paper. “We’ve seen this on Earth, where these objects can hurtle through the atmosphere, hit the ground, and leave behind a crater. But before this, we’ve never been able to capture the dynamics of an impact on Mars, where there’s a much thinner atmosphere.”

To investigate the martian planet’s structure, crust, and impact activity NASA launched the InSight lander. It touched down on the Elysium Planitia in late 2018 and began recording data, including seismic waves.
Researchers examined those recordings to see if they between 2020 and 2021 to see if they could find any recent craters produced by incoming meteoroids. They expected to detect between one and 100 impacts every five Earth years.

Elysium Planitia
First images of Elysium Planitia from InSight’s Instrument Deployment Camera (Source: Wiki, by NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An Impactful Research

Researchers explored the acoustic and seismic waves triggered by the impact of space projectiles using SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), an instrument embedded in InSight. Determining how fast these waves traveled through Mars’ air and rock, researchers estimated the location of four different craters that they decided to explore in detail.

To confirm their estimations, they compared them to visual data provided by Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“These seismic measurements give us a completely new tool for investigating Mars, or any other planet we can land a seismometer on,” said planetary geophysicist Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the InSight mission’s principal investigator.

The combination of the images and wave data provided investigators with a way to study the martian atmosphere and its interior structure. A better understanding of Mars’ seismology will provide valuable information regarding the planet’s core, heating processes, and underlying tectonic activities.

Planetary Structure and Evolution

The findings from this research will likely impact different planetary studies, as they’ll allow researchers to use seismic activity data to investigate other planets across our entire solar system.

“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 use the results on other planets and moons, too,” said Brown University planetary scientist Ingrid Daubar, a co-author of the study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The results could help researchers understand how often new impacts occur in the inner solar system and how they impact each planet’s atmosphere and interior. Combining acoustic and seismic wave recordings with images might also be the first step in determining a planet’s core solidity and heating processes.

Researchers also consider these findings as a way to better understand planetary formation and evolution. “Studying how impacts work on Mars is like opening a window into the fundamental processes of how terrestrial planets form,” Schmerr said. “All inner solar system planets share this commonality, including Earth.”

The original article is called “Newly formed craters on Mars located using seismic and acoustic wave data from InSight” and can be found in Nature Geoscience.


New evidence suggests there’s liquid water under the Martian ice cap

By Raquel Santos

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, has found new evidence that suggests the existence of liquid water under the South polar ice cap of Mars. Using spacecraft laser-altimeter measurements, researchers provided the first line of evidence, without using radar, that our neighbor red planet might contain water under its icy surface.

Mars South Polar Ice Cap
(Image Credit: Photo by NASA/JPL/MSSS (Source: Wikipedia))

The findings give way to a wide variety of implications. The main one is that there is a probability that Mars is geothermally active.

A back-and-forward debate

In 2018, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite provided some evidence that indicated that there was liquid water under Mars’ southern ice cap. Using its ice-penetrating radar, MARSIS, revealed an area at the base of the ice that reflected the radar signal.
These measurements were originally interpreted as a possibility of the presence of water beneath the ice. However, researchers were quick to refute it.

Subsequent studies showed that other types of dry material produce similar responses to the ones found under the martian ice cap. And because the climate conditions on Mars are so cold, liquid water beneath the ice would require additional heat sources that weren’t expected to exist on this planet at the time. The radar signal also appeared in some orbital passes but not others.

This debate put the theory on standby, waiting for another line of evidence that could either support it or disprove it completely.

Is that water?

Results from the recent research, published in the Nature Astronomy journal, provide additional evidence that there could, in fact, be liquid water under the southern martian polar ice cap. The team used a wide variety of techniques to examine the surface of Mars’ south polar ice cap where the radar signal was identified.

The analysis showed a 10-15 kilometer-long surface undulation, with depressions followed by raised areas, similar in scale to undulations over subglacial lakes on Earth.

Surface topographic impact of subglacial water beneath the south polar ice cap of Mars
(Image Credit: Original Article)

Then, the researchers tried to determine whether these undulations could be explained by liquid water under the cap. They ran computer simulations of ice flow adapted to the conditions found on Mars.

These models predicted what would happen beneath the ice cap if there was liquid water present. They also inserted various levels of geothermal heat coming from inside the planet. The experiment generated undulations that were similar in shape and size to the ones observed on the real ice cap surface.

Professor Neil Arnold, the leader of the research, said: “The combination of the new topographic evidence, our computer model results, and the radar data make it much more likely that at least one area of subglacial liquid water exists on Mars today, and that Mars must still be geothermally active in order to keep the water beneath the ice cap liquid.”

Where there’s water…

There might be water on Mars, but it doesn’t mean that there’s life. However, it makes it a bit more likely that it could’ve existed in the past when the planet’s conditions were a lot different than what they are today.

For the water to be liquid under the martian ice caps, in such cold conditions, it would need to be extremely salty. That, combined with the harsh conditions of the red planet would make it difficult for even the most extreme microbial life to survive. If martian microbial life is anything like the one existing on Earth, that is.

Still, this discovery could potentially open new paths to help us understand if there were any habitable environments on Mars in the past. It could also be used as a starting point to trying to figure out more about other planets as well.

“The quality of data coming back from Mars, from orbital satellites as well as from the landers, is such that we can use it to answer really difficult questions about conditions on, and even under the planet’s surface, using the same techniques we also use on Earth,” said Arnold. “It’s exciting to use these techniques to find out things about planets other than our own.”


Mars Copter Ready to Rock

Mars Copter
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has reported over the weekend that the Mars Copter, an incredible bonus feature included with the Perseverance rover mission, has checked in and all systems are nominal! It will be undergoing battery charging sessions over the next several weeks, assessing how it performs in that harsh climate with extreme cold temperatures over night of around -130F. Once it has demonstrated that it can be hearty and hold a charge, it will be released from home base and be on its own! A 30 day mission will then commence, and we might start getting some really incredible in-flight videos from the little Ingenuity copter, which will of course be the first aircraft on another world.

In the meantime, we can be sure that Perseverance will continue to send back more and more findings, supplementing the already rich set of imagery we have gotten in just the first few days!

Perseverance Wheel and Rocks


Perseverance Arrives Feb 18th

Nasa Perseverance Rover
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

With the UAE and China reaching Mars this past week, the United States will now be joining the party this week with their latest Mars rover, Perseverance! It plans to arrive in a pretty grand way, so be sure to check out this rendering of the landing process.

Yes, that’s right, they plan to inflate a giant, supersonic parachute, then deploy a jet-powered “sky crane” that will descend to a safe landing spot and hover above the surface while lowering the rover to the ground on a tether (Reuters). That’s a lot of science!

The mission profile is to “seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth”. Be sure to learn more at the official NASA Mars 2020 page!

One can almost tangibly feel the interest and activity surrounding missions to Mars building stronger every day. Public sentiment and commercial support will be at a fever pitch, just in time for SpaceX to bring their Starship system on line in about a year, and then we are going to see some seriously amazing things!


UAE Gets to Mars

UAE Hope Mars Probe
(Image Credit: Chris Whiteoak / The National)

After announcing the ambitious project back in 2015, the United Arab Emirates successfully reached the red planet today with their Hope Mars Probe, massively decelerated and entered orbit all according to plan!

This was a wonderful success to see, as it further expands the scope of nations that are embarking upon this new phase of growth and exploration. Dubai and the UAE, more than many other nations in recent history, probably benefits from a frontier mentality that the rest of us can only imagine or read about. They grew in four decades from a small traditional society, based off of fishing and local trade, into a stunning modern metropolis and economic powerhouse, on the back of their good luck being located on top of so much oil. The ruler there, however, is no dummy and knows that the oil gravy train won’t run much longer, so has taken many wise steps to diversify their economy.

This push into science and technology is another of these steps, and will be a benefit to both that region, and to the overall betterment of mankind if they can manage it as they have managed their beautiful cities.

So – congratulations to the UAE team for their successful mission. I can’t wait to see the science that will start to come back from this probe, which will tell us more about the Martian atmosphere on a global scale.

Want to see a cool related video from the successful landing celebration? Check out the entire Burj Khalifa putting on a high-res light show:


Starship High Altitude Flight Test

Starship High Altitude Test
( Image Credit: SpaceX)

In the three months since the previous Mars Gazette update, a grievous amount of time which the publisher will endeavor to reduce, there has been the typical and astonishing level of progress made by the other-worldly teams at SpaceX. Excitement has been building for weeks, leading up to the next step in the development of Starship, the craft that will soon begin taking supplies and then brave explorers to Mars and beyond. The planned 50,000 ft high altitude test was slated for today but got scrubbed at the last t-1 second mark due to a Raptor engine auto-abort. This conveniently provided enough time to report on this exciting and historic upcoming event! The test has been rescheduled for Wednesday, 12/9/2020 though of course that is subject to change.

Consider what any one of us has gotten accomplished in the past three months. I’ve read a couple of books, I’ve tried not to watch too much news, I’ve written some code that does moderately useful things. These men and women have created the prototype of a ship that will almost certainly take us to Mars in under 6 years. If you have been paying attention, it has almost become a truism to not bet against the God King of Mars. Elon says this is going to work, and I for one believe him!

Be sure to check the SpaceX webcast page tomorrow for updates, and a livestream that will be posted and activated shortly before the next launch attempt.

SpaceX Making Dreams Come True

Starship Hop Test
( Image Credit: SpaceX)

There have been a simply incredible number of breakthroughs, developments and achievements coming out of Boca Chica from the fine folks at SpaceX over the past few months, and the Gazette will start bringing them to you more rigorously. What more important news, one wonders, regarding Mars than the only team in the brief history of humanity who may be able to make multi-planetary life happen!

Above is pictured the first ‘hop test’ of the new Starship design. As usual, it went flawlessly, though it followed a series of explosive decompressions and other excitement on the test pad of previous Starship test models. These events are always confusingly mocked by observers, who completely fail to grasp that this is the fastest way to develop the product and reach success. Would-be competitors such as Blue Origin and (good gracious) Boeing are still drafting plans to have a series of meetings to discuss the design of their test stands, no doubt. Meanwhile, Musk and company are probably drawing up the plans for the Mars pizzerias!

Mars Rover Has a Name!

There has been a winner in the contest to name the next NASA rover en route to the Red Planet. The winner is Alexander Mather, with his steadfast and optimistic suggestion of “Perseverance”! Check out this video for more info, and congrats to Alexander. Seeing such interest in space exploration from today’s kids continues to renew my hope for the future!


Mars 2020 Rover Naming Contest

Mars 2020 Rover Naming Contest
(Credit: NASA)
The next NASA Mars rover is slated to launch in July 2020, and arrive at Jezero Crater in February 2021. Before it takes off, NASA is again running their student naming contest, allowing K-12 students across the US to submit name suggestions. The top 9 finalists have been selected, and are as follows:

  • Endurance, K-4, Oliver Jacobs of Virgina
  • Tenacity, K-4, Eamon Reilly of Pennsylvania.
  • Promise, K-4, Amira Shanshiry of Massachusetts.
  • Perseverance, 5-8, Alexander Mather of Virginia.
  • Vision, 5-8, Hadley Green of Mississippi.
  • Clarity, 5-8, Nora Benitez of California.
  • Ingenuity, 9-12, Vaneeza Rupani of Alabama.
  • Fortitude, 9-12, Anthony Yoon of Oklahoma.
  • Courage, 9-12, Tori Gray of Louisiana.

Now you can vote on the winner at until January 28th, so don’t waste any time getting over there!


The Bees at Lunares Station

Bees at Lunares Station
(Image Credit: Lunares Research Station)

If that title doesn’t sound like an excellent 1960s sci-fi pulp, then I don’t know what does. Best part is? We’re living in a time when it’s just referencing a real thing!

Turns out there is a facility called Lunares Research Station, which was founded in 2017 as “a specialized facility for simulating manned space missions on the Moon and Mars”. Check out their site for the great work they are doing!

Of particular interest to us today is recent research they have been doing with bees, as reported by Wired this week. You see, even though NASA is working on Mars Bees (which is itself another excellent pulp title) we have to consider that in many ways, the original natural approach may simply be better. However, what is being observed is that hives in isolated conditions are suffering a downward spiral of collapse which will have to be better understood and resolved before they will be able to participate in upcoming missions. The idea, of course, is that humans will have to grow food for both the long journey, as well as for basic upkeep once we are settled in our new environment. We would like to bring some of the comforts of home, like good old honey bees to pollinate the produce we need to consume, so it’s good that the fine folks at Lunares are hard at work on this problem!