If we think untangling Earth’s complex geological history is difficult, think of the challenge involved in doing the same for Mars. At such a great distance, we rely on a few orbiters, a handful of rovers and landers, and our powerful telescopes to gather evidence. But unlike Earth, Mars is, for the most part, geologically inactive. Much of the evidence for Mars’ long history is still visible on the surface.
That helped scientists identify the source of one of our most well-known meteorites.
They are headed toward the surface like a speeding freight train… and running ahead of them is a shockwave. Just like a loud sound can trigger a snow avalanche here on Earth, the shockwave of a meteorite crashing through the Martian atmosphere could trigger dust avalanches on the surface before an actual impact.
According to a study led by University of Arizona undergraduate student, Kaylan Burleigh, there is sufficient photographic evidence to prove that incoming meteorites are producing enough energy to impact the surface environment just as much as the strike. Mars’ thin atmosphere also contributes, since the lesser density means most meteorites survive the trip to the surface. “We expected that some of the streaks of dust that we see on slopes are caused by seismic shaking during impact,” said Burleigh. “We were surprised to find that it rather looks like shockwaves in the air trigger the avalanches even before the impact.”
Spotting new craters happens frequently. Thanks to the HiRISE camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers find up to twenty newly formed craters that measure between 1 and 50 meters (3 to 165 feet) each year. To perform their study, the team focused their attention on a grouping of five craters which formed at the same time. This quintuplet is located near the Martian equator, about 825 kilometers (512 miles) south of the boundary scarp of Olympus Mons. Earlier investigations of the area had revealed dark streaks which were surmised at the time to be landslides, but no one thought to credit them to an impact theory. The largest crater in the cluster measures 22 meters, or 72 feet across and the multiple formation is thought to have occurred due to a shattering of the meteor just ahead of final impact.
“The dark streaks represent the material exposed by the avalanches, as induced by the airblast from the impact,” Burleigh said. “I counted more than 100,000 avalanches and, after repeated counts and deleting duplicates, arrived at 64,948.”
As Burleigh took a closer look at the distribution of avalanches around the impact site, he noticed a lot of relative things, but the most important was a curved formation described as scimitars. This was a major clue as to how they were formed. “Those scimitars tipped us off that something other than seismic shaking must be causing the dust avalanches,” Burleigh said.
Just as a freight train sends a rumble before it arrives, so does the incoming meteor. By using computer modeling, the team was able to simulate how a shockwave could form and match the scimatar patterns to the HiRISE images. “We think the interference among different pressure waves lifts up the dust and sets avalanches in motion. These interference regions, and the avalanches, occur in a reproducible pattern,” Burleigh said. “We checked other impact sites and realized that when we see avalanches, we usually see two scimitars, not just one, and they both tend to be at a certain angle to each other. This pattern would be difficult to explain by seismic shaking.”
Because there are no plate tectonics, nor water erosion issues, these types of findings are very important to understanding how many Martian surface features are formed. “This is one part of a larger story about current surface activity on Mars, which we are realizing is very different than previously believed,” said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator of the HiRISE project and one of the co-authors of the study. “We must understand how Mars works today before we can correctly interpret what may have happened when the climate was different, and before we can draw comparisons to Earth.”