In the week that the rock-and-roll music world lost one of its legends – Jerry Lee Lewis, whose first hit was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” – NASA announced that there has been a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on that it couldn’t explain. No, not on the great ball of fire we call the Sun – goodness gracious, that would shake our nerves and rattle our brains – but on Mars. The shaking was a mystery because it was so violent that space seismologists thought it must be a marsquake … but it couldn't pinpoint the date nor location. Instead, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the Mars InSight lander working together helped finally located the likely source – a meteorite impact that appears to be one of the most powerful ever been witnessed directly in our solar system. And that is some shaking worthy of legend it will share the week with … Jerry Lee Lewis.
“We ain't fakin'
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on.”
‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ – sung by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Dave “Curlee” Williams and James Faye “Roy” Hall
On December 24, 2021, NASA’s InSight lander recorded a magnitude 4 marsquake. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) has been on Mars since on November 26, 2018, and was regularly picking up seismic waves in the magnitude 2 from meteorite strikes, but this was huge. Unfortunately, InSight is not a rover like Perseverance and doesn’t have a helicopter like Ingenuity, so NASA engineers had to find another way to locate the crater of this huge space rock. Their estimates showed that the impact to create a magnitude 4 marsquake would create a crater at least 430 feet (130 meters) wide. That should not be hard to find … if something is looking for it.
"When we first saw this image, we were extremely excited. This was nothing like we've seen before."
Fortunately, something – and someone -- was. At the briefing to announce the publication of two papers in the journal Science on the discovery, Liliya Posiolova, orbital science operations lead for MRO at Malin Space Science Systems in California, revealed that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had recently discovered a fresh and really large impact crater. Spotted on February 11 using data from the MRO's Context Camera, the crater and the debris it created was 19 miles (30 km) wide. That nearly exceeded the ability of the camera, so additional photos were inspected on either side of it. Whatever created this crater was one big rock.
“Well, I said come on over baby
We got chicken in the barn”
(Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On)
Posiolova called over a research team to inspect the crater, then work backwards to determine the size of the meteorite. Simulations showed it was an asteroid between 16 feet (5 meters) and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. In Earth terms, that’s an annoying speck that would have probably been incinerated in the atmosphere. However, Mars has barely a wisp of atmosphere, so this rock barreled unimpeded into the surface. That gave the NASA researchers a how and a why – what they needed now was a ‘when’.
“The impact’s blast zone was visible in MARCI data that allowed the team to pin down a 24-hour period within which the impact occurred. These observations correlated with the seismic epicenter, conclusively demonstrating that a meteoroid impact caused the large Dec. 24 marsquake.”
While the Context Camera (CTX) provides black-and-white medium-resolution images, the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) produces daily maps of the entire planet for the purpose of track large-scale changes in Martian weather. Those maps allowed the MRO researchers to match up with the InSight data. Now that they could see photos of the crater immediately after the asteroid’s impact, they could see what it blasted out of the hole and scattered across the surface. As it turns out, that was an even bigger discovery than the crater itself.
“The image of the impact was unlike any I had seen before, with the massive crater, the exposed ice, and the dramatic blast zone preserved in the Martian dust.”
The key word in Posiolova’s statement is “ice” – which is the key to colonizing Mars. Ice provides astronauts with drinking water, plant water, potable water and rocket propellant. The big surprise here is that the crater is very close to the Martian equator – a good warmish place for astronauts to land and work but a hard place to find ice … until now.
But wait … there’s more to this shakin’ goin’ on!
InSight has been looking for some help to shake loose the Martian dust which has been building up on its solar panels lately. Wind used to provide enough power to sweep off the buildup, but a good marsquake or ten would help shake more of it loose. If that doesn’t happen, it looks like NASA’s plan to shut down InSight for good within the next six weeks will end its otherwise fantastic mission. That mission – to study Mars’ crust, mantle and core by measuring and analyzing marsquakes -- has resulted in “insights” into 1,318 marsquakes, including a few caused by small meteoroids. However, it saved the best for last – the Christmas Eve asteroid delivered a gift … surface waves. These are seismic waves that cause ripples in the top layer of the Martian crust which gives a massive picture of that area between the impact crater and the measuring devices on InSight. In this case, that’s a distance of 2,200 miles (3,500 km). it marks the first time in the three year mission researchers saw surface waves. Actually, there was another impact in Septemer 2021, but its distance was much farther away. The December 24 impact finally created what InSight had been sent to measure. As Jerry Lee Lewis put it, that asteroid:
“Really got the bull by the horn
We ain't fakin'
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on”
(Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On)
Jerry Lee Lewis was one of a kind. So is the Mars InSight Lander. Both were involved with major impacts and a whole lot of shaking. Jerry Lee is already in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We need one for spacecrafts like InSight.