This Is Such A Blast!

A fresh crater in the Arabia Terra region of Mars photographed by the Mars Global Surveyor. The impact occurred sometime between December 8, 2003 and November 26, 2005. The dark rings and rays around the crater were created by the expanding shock wave of the impact. The long rays and dark spots are secondary impacts when material from the crust was thrown outward from the explosion. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

This is such a neat image. So many of the craters we see in photos are on the order of several billion years old that it comes as an unexpected surprise to stumble upon a fresh one. This impact on Mars is only 75 feet across – about as big as your front yard – and shows beautiful wispy tendrils of dark debris extending from the blast zone. The Mars Global Surveyor mission found 20 new, small impact craters during its continuous monitoring of the planet between May 1999 and March 2006.  Click the link and take a look at them when you have time.

I find parallels between Earth and alien worlds fascinating. Mars gets an occasional smack by a meteorite just like Earth does. Many that hit our planet land in the ocean and leave no impression, but since Mars lacks surface water,  just about any worthy impact leaves its mark for the remote eye of a spacecraft to see.

Before and after photos of the Arabia crater impact. The left photo was taken in December 2003; the circle is the area where the impact had yet to occur. The right image is from November 2005 after the new crater had formed. The crater appears white rather than dark because it was photographed in infrared (heat) light. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

No other planet draws like Mars. There are currently three orbiting probes studying and photographing Mars’ surface and weather every day. Down on the ground, the Opportunity Rover is halfway along its 11.8 mile journey from Victoria Crater to Endeavor Crater. Come next January, Opportunity will have been operational for seven years – that’s six years and nine months longer than planned. No one’s heard from the Spirit Rover since March 22. It got mired in sand in 2009 and has been nearly stationery since. The robot is currently in hibernation mode during the long Martian winter and hasn’t responded to commands from Earth. If mission controllers don’t hear from it by next March, that’ll probably spell the end of its mission.

Engineers working in a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, installed six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotated all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next generation “super rover” Curiosity will be launched in the fall of 2011. At 9 feet, it’s twice as long as Spirit and Opportunity and loaded with instruments to assess whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life and conditions that may have preserved clues about its existence. Multiple cameras, a laser for zapping rocks, an instrument to search for organic compounds and a nifty nuclear battery to keep everything running year round. This baby is deluxe! I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of Mars.