The people of Chelyabinsk in Russia got the surprise of their lives on the morning of February 15, 2013. That’s when a small asteroid exploded overhead. The resulting shockwave damaged buildings, injured people, and sent a sonic boom thundering across the region.
About 50,000 years ago, a nickel-iron meteorite some 50 meters across plowed into the Pleistocene-era grasslands of what is now Northern Arizona. It was traveling fast—about 13 kilometers per second. In just a few seconds, an impact dug out a crater just over a kilometer wide and spread rocks from the site for miles around.
Throughout the Solar System, planets and moons bear the scars of a past fraught with collisions. The Moon, Mercury, and Mars are so scarred from these impacts that craters overlap one another on their surfaces. Earth was subject to the same bombardment, though most of its impact scars disappeared over time due to active geology.
But some are still visible, and we know how catastrophic some of these impacts were for life.
The Moon’s pock-marked surface tells the story of its history. It’s marked by over 9,000 impact craters, according to the International Astronomical Union (IAU.) The largest ones are called impact basins, not craters. According to a new study, asteroids didn’t create the basins; leftover planetesimals did.
The Mars InSight lander might be nearing the end of its life on the Red Planet, but its scientific data are still shaking up the planetary science community. That’s because it detected another Marsquake on December 24, 2021. It was a major shaker and generated surface waves that rippled across the crust of the planet. The data from that quake allowed science team members to get a better idea of the Martian crust’s structure.
Ancient impacts played a powerful role in Earth’s complex history. On other Solar System bodies like the Moon or Mercury, the impact history is preserved on their surfaces because there’s nothing to erase it. But Earth’s geologic activity has erased the evidence of impact craters over time, with some help from erosion.
Earth’s complex history has elevated its status among its Solar System siblings and created a world that’s rippling with life. Ancient giant impacts have played a role in that history, bringing catastrophe and disruption and irrevocably changing the course of events. Deciphering the role these giant impacts played is difficult since the evidence is missing or severely degraded. So how do scientists approach this problem?
It only takes a quick look at the Moon to see its impact-beaten surface. There are craters everywhere. Some of those impact sites apparently date back to the same time some very large asteroids were whacking Earth. One of them formed Chixculub Crater under the Yucatan Peninsula. That impact set in motion catastrophic events that wiped out much of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
Early Earth was a wild and wooly place. In its first billion years, during a period called the Archean, our planet was still hot from its formation. Essentially, the surface was lava for millions of years. Asteroids bombarded the planet, and the place was still recovering from the impact that formed the Moon. Oceans were beginning to form as the surface solidified and water outgassed from the rock. The earliest atmosphere was actually rock vapor, followed quickly by the growth of a largely hot carbon dioxide and water vapor blanket. Earth was just starting land masses that later became continents. For decades, geologists have asked: what started continental formation?
The world is still reeling from the release of the James Webb Space Telescope‘s (JWST) first images. These provided a comprehensive overview of the kind of science operations that Webb will conduct over its 20-year mission. They included the most sensitive and detailed look at some iconic astronomical objects, spectra from an exoplanet atmosphere, and a deep field view of some of the most distant galaxies in the Universe. Since their release, we’ve also been treated to glimpses of objects in the Solar System captured by Webb‘s infrared instruments.
Meanwhile, the JWST collaboration released a full report titled titled “Characterization of JWST science performance from commissioning,” in which they examined everything Webb has accomplished so far and what they anticipate throughout the mission. This paper recently appeared online and covers everything from the telescope’s navigation and pointing to the performance of its many instruments. An interesting tidbit, which was not previously released, is how Webb suffered a series of micrometeoroid impacts, one of which caused “uncorrectable change” in one mirror segment.