Meteor crater discovered hidden by polar ice

Animated GIF: Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr
Two views of the Hiawatha crater region: one covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the second showing the topography of the rock beneath the ice sheet, including the crater. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr

An international team of researchers that includes a NASA glaciologist has discovered a 19-mile-wide meteorite impact crater hiding beneath more than half a mile of ice in northwest Greenland. This is the first impact crater of any size ever found under the polar ice sheets.

The group, led by researchers from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, worked for the past three years to verify their discovery, which was initially made in 2015 using NASA data. The researchers first spotted the crater in July 2015, while they were inspecting a new map of the topography beneath Greenland’s ice sheet that used ice-penetrating radar data primarily from NASA’s Operation IceBridge — a multi-year airborne mission to track changes in polar ice — and earlier NASA airborne missions in Greenland. The scientists noticed an enormous, previously unexamined circular depression under Hiawatha Glacier, sitting at the very edge of the ice sheet in northwestern Greenland.

Their finding is described in a study published on Nov. 14 in the journal Science Advances. The crater is roughly 1,000 feet deep and more than 19 miles in diameter, encompassing an area slightly larger than that comprised inside the Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C. Its dimensions place it among the 25 largest impact craters on Earth.

The crater formed when an iron meteorite more than half a mile wide smashed into northwest Greenland – but the timing of when the event happened remains a key question and one the researchers want to answer next. The authors put the range between less than three million years ago and as recently as less than 13,000 years ago. The resulting depression has since been covered by ice.

A narrated video outlines the discovery and includes data visualizations which can be found here:


Crucial data gained from Chelyabinsk meteor fall

News from NASA….

A team of NASA and international scientists for the first time have gathered a detailed understanding of the effects on Earth from a small asteroid impact.

The unprecedented data obtained as the result of the airburst of a meteoroid over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15, has revolutionized scientists’ understanding of this natural phenomenon.

The Chelyabinsk incident was well observed by citizen cameras and other assets. This factor provided a unique opportunity for researchers to calibrate the event, with implications for the study of near-Earth objects (NEOs) and the development of hazard mitigation strategies for planetary defense. Scientists from nine countries now have established a new benchmark for future asteroid impact modeling.

“Our goal was to understand all circumstances that resulted in the shock wave,” said meteor expert Peter Jenniskens, co-lead author of a report published in the journal Science.

Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, participated in a field study led by Olga Popova of the Institute for Dynamics of Geospheres of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in the weeks following the event.

“It was important that we followed up with the many citizens who had firsthand accounts of the event and recorded incredible video while the experience was still fresh in their minds,” said Popova.

By calibrating the video images from the position of the stars in the night sky, Jenniskens and Popova calculated the impact speed of the meteor at 42,500 mph (19 kilometers per second). As the meteor penetrated through the atmosphere, it fragmented into pieces, peaking at 19 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface. At that point the superheated meteor appeared brighter than the sun, even for people 62 miles (100 kilometers) away.

Because of the extreme heat, many pieces of the meteor vaporized before reaching Earth. Scientists believe that between 9,000 to 13,000 pounds (4,000 to 6,000 kilograms) of meteorites fell to the ground. This amount included one fragment weighing approximately 1,400 pounds (650 kilograms). This fragment was recovered from Lake Chebarkul on Oct. 16 by professional divers guided by Ural Federal University researchers in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

NASA researchers participating in the 59-member consortium study suspect the abundance of shock fractures in the rock contributed its breakup in the upper atmosphere. Meteorites made available by Chelyabinsk State University researchers were analyzed to learn about the origin of the shock veins and their physical properties. Shock veins are caused by asteroid collisions. When asteroid collide with each other, heat generated by the impact causes iron and nickel components of the objects to melt. These melts cool into thin masses, forming metal veins – shock veins – in the objects.

“One of these meteorites broke along one of these shock veins when we pressed on it during our analysis,” said Derek Sears, a meteoriticist at Ames.

Mike Zolensky, a cosmochemist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, may have found why these shock veins (or shock fractures), were so frail. They contained layers of small iron grains just inside the vein, which had precipitated out of the glassy material when it cooled.

“There are cases where impact melt increases a meteorite’s mechanical strength, but Chelyabinsk was weakened by it,” said Zolensky.

The impact that created the shock veins may have occurred as long ago as 4.4 billion years. This would have been 115 million years after the formation of the solar system, according to the research team, who found the meteorites had experienced a significant impact event at that time.

“Events that long ago affected how the Chelyabinsk meteoroid broke up in the atmosphere, influencing the damaging shockwave,” said Jenniskens.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program sponsors research to better understand the origin and nature of NEOs. These essential studies are needed to inform our approach to preparing for the potential discovery and deflection of an object on a collision course with the Earth.

NASA’s recently announced asteroid initiative includes the first mission to capture and relocate an asteroid, as well as a grand challenge to find and characterize all asteroid threats to human population. It represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities that will help protect our home planet.

Aside from representing a potential threat, the study of asteroids and comets represent a valuable opportunity to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the source of water on the Earth, and even the origin of organic molecules that lead to the development of life.

Confirmed: Earth’s “Martian meteorites” really are from Mars

PASADENA, Calif. — Examination of the Martian atmosphere by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover confirms that some meteorites that have dropped to Earth really are from the Red Planet.

A key new measurement of the inert gas argon in Mars’ atmosphere by Curiosity’s laboratory provides the most definitive evidence yet of the origin of Mars meteorites while at the same time providing a way to rule out Martian origin of other meteorites.

The new measurement is a high-precision count of two forms of argon — argon-36 and argon-38 — accomplished by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument inside the rover. These lighter and heavier forms, or isotopes, of argon exist naturally throughout the solar system. On Mars the ratio of light to heavy argon is skewed because much of that planet’s original atmosphere was lost to space. The lighter form of argon was taken away more readily because it rises to the top of the atmosphere more easily and requires less energy to escape. That left the Martian atmosphere relatively enriched in the heavier isotope, argon-38.

Years of past analyses by Earth-bound scientists of gas bubbles trapped inside Martian meteorites had already narrowed the Martian argon ratio to between 3.6 and 4.5 (that is 3.6 to 4.5 atoms of argon-36 to every one of argon-38). Measurements by NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970s put the Martian atmospheric ratio in the range of four to seven. The new SAM direct measurement on Mars now pins down the correct argon ratio at 4.2.

“We really nailed it,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, lead author of an Oct. 16 paper reporting the finding in Geophysical Research Letters. “This direct reading from Mars settles the case with all Martian meteorites.”

One reason scientists have been so interested in the argon ratio in Martian meteorites is that it was — before Curiosity — the best measure of how much atmosphere Mars has lost since the planet’s wetter, warmer days billions of years ago. Figuring out the planet’s atmospheric loss would enable scientists to better understand how Mars transformed from a once water-rich planet, more like our own, into today’s drier, colder and less-hospitable world.

Had Mars held onto all of its atmosphere and its original argon, its ratio of the gas would be the same as that of the sun and Jupiter. Those bodies have so much gravity that isotopes can’t preferentially escape, so their argon ratio — which is 5.5 — represents that of the primordial solar system.

While argon makes up only a tiny fraction of the gas lost to space from Mars, it is special because it’s a noble gas. That means the gas is inert, not reacting with other elements or compounds, and therefore a more straightforward tracer of the history of the Martian atmosphere.

“Other isotopes measured by SAM on Curiosity also support the loss of atmosphere, but none so directly as argon,” said Atreya. “Argon is the clearest signature of atmospheric loss because it’s chemically inert and does not interact or exchange with the Martian surface or the interior. This was a key measurement that we wanted to carry out on SAM.”

The Curiosity measurements do not directly measure the current rate of atmospheric escape, but NASA’s next mission to Mars, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), is designed to do so. That mission is being prepared at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a launch-opportunity period that begins on Nov. 18.

February asteroids: A hit and a miss!

NASA Statement, 2/15/2013

New information provided by a worldwide network of sensors has allowed scientists to refine their estimates for the size of the object that entered that atmosphere and disintegrated in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at 7:20:26 p.m. PST, or 10:20:26 p.m. EST on Feb. 14 (3:20:26 UTC on Feb. 15).

The estimated size of the object, prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere, has been revised upward from 49 feet (15 meters) to 55 feet (17 meters), and its estimated mass has increased from 7,000 to 10,000 tons. Also, the estimate for energy released during the event has increased by 30 kilotons to nearly 500 kilotons of energy released. These new estimates were generated using new data that had been collected by five additional infrasound stations located around the world – the first recording of the event being in Alaska, over 6,500 kilometers away from Chelyabinsk. The infrasound data indicates that the event, from atmospheric entry to the meteor’s airborne disintegration took 32.5 seconds. The calculations using the infrasound data were performed by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

“We would expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years on average,” said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “When you have a fireball of this size we would expect a large number of meteorites to reach the surface and in this case there were probably some large ones.”

The trajectory of the Russia meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, which hours later made its flyby of Earth, making it a completely unrelated object. The Russia meteor is the largest reported since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia.