Mars bashed by (only) 200 asteroids a year

U. ARIZONA (US) — Mars is pummeled by space rocks less frequently than previously thought, experts report.

Using images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have estimated that the planet is bombarded by more than 200 small asteroids or bits of comets per year forming craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) across.

The team identified 248 new impact sites on the surface of the red planet in the past decade. The 200-per-year, planet-wide estimate is a calculation based on the number found in a systematic survey of a portion of the planet.

One of many fresh impact craters spotted by the UA-led HiRISE camera, orbiting the Red Planet on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter since 2006. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UA)

The University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera captured pictures of the fresh craters at sites where before and after images had been taken.

The combination offers a new way to make direct measurements of the impact rate on Mars and will lead to better age estimates of recent features—some of which may have been the result of climate change.

“It’s exciting to find these new craters right after they form,” says lead author Ingrid Daubar, graduate student of planetary science. “It reminds you Mars is an active planet, and we can study processes that are happening today.”

These asteroids or comet fragments typically are no more than 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) in diameter. Space rocks too small to reach the ground on Earth cause craters on Mars because it has a much thinner atmosphere.

HiRISE targeted places where dark spots had appeared during the time between images taken by the spacecraft’s Context Camera, or CTX, or cameras on other orbiters. The new estimate of cratering rate is based on a portion of the 248 new craters detected and comes from a systematic check of a dusty fraction of the planet with CTX since late 2006.

The impacts disturb the dust, creating noticeable blast zones. In this part of the research, 44 fresh impact sites were identified. The meteor over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February was about 10 times bigger than the objects that dug the fresh Martian craters.

Estimates of the rate at which new craters appear serve as the best yardstick for estimating the ages of exposed landscape surfaces on Mars and other planets.

For the study, published in the journal Icarus, researchers calculated a rate for how frequently new craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) in diameter are excavated. The rate is equivalent to an average of one each year on each area of the Martian surface roughly the size of the state of Texas.

Earlier estimates pegged the cratering rate at three to 10 times more craters per year. Those estimates were based on studies of craters on the moon and the ages of lunar rocks collected during NASA’s Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Mars now has the best-known current rate of cratering in the solar system,” says HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen, a co-author on the paper.

MRO has been examining Mars with six instruments since 2006. “The longevity of this mission is providing wonderful opportunities for investigating changes on Mars,” says Leslie Tamppari of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Source: University of Arizona

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