In October 2014, I wrote about comet Sliding Spring and it’s close approach to Mars as it swung through the solar system.
The comet had been identified as coming from the Oort cloud (or the Öpik–Oort cloud, to give proper recognition both astronomers who initially and independently postulated its existence), a spherical cloud of debris left-over from the creation of the solar system, occupying a huge area starting some 2,000-5,000 AU (2,000 to 5,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) and extending out to around 50-100,000 AU – or about one light year away.
There is nothing odd about comets from the Oort cloud per se, but Sliding Spring appeared to be making its very first journey into the inner solar system, and so astronomers were keen to try to study it as best they could. Given the close pass at Mars, the vehicles on and orbiting that planet stood to have something of a grandstand view of things – providing certain precautions were taken, as I noted at the time.
Now data released by NASA shows that the comet’s flight past Mars did result in something very unusual: the comet’s tail, which brushed the Martian atmosphere, resulted in a “rain of metal” over the planet.
The data was obtained by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN), which at the time of the comet’s passage was so recent an arrival at Mars, that all its instruments hadn’t been fully commissioned. Hence, in part, the delay in releasing the data – NASA wanted to be sure MAVEN was recording things accurately.
According to MAVEN, the direct detection of sodium, magnesium, aluminium, chromium, nickel, copper, zinc, iron and other metals high in the Martian atmosphere can be linked directly to material sloughing off of the comet as it passed.
“This must have been a mind-blowing meteor shower,” said Nick Schneider of the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, commenting on the data returned by the orbiter. Such is the strength of the signal of magnesium and iron measurements, the hourly meteor rate overhead on Mars must have been tens of thousands of “shooting stars” per hour over a period of many hours.
“I’m not sure anyone alive has ever seen that,” Schneider added, “and the closest thing in human history might the the 1833 Leonids shower.” The metal ions were the remains of pebbles and other pieces shed from the comet that burned up, or “ablated” into individual atoms as they struck the Martian atmosphere at 56 kilometres per second (125,000 miles per hour).
What is particularly important about the event is that as scientists know the source of the dust particles, it’s speed, and key information about Mars’ upper atmosphere, it is possible to learn more about Mars’ ionosphere, the comet’s composition, and even the workings of Earth’s ionosphere when it is hit by comet or asteroid debris.
There is glass on Mars, and it might just be the ideal place in which to find any evidence of past microbial life.
The type of glass in question is referred to as “impact glass”, and is formed as a result of the heat generated by the impact of a meteorite melts the surrounding rock into glass. when a meteorite strikes the surface of a planet or moon, melting the surrounding rock into glass, preserving and organic matter that existed on or in the rock prior to the meteorite impact occurring.
In 2014, a research team examining impact glass formed millions of years ago as a result of meteorite strikes in Antarctica form found organic molecules and plant matter within the glass. Their work spurred a group of planetary science graduates at Brown University, Rhode Island, to simulate the spectral composition of possible Martian impact glass by using chemicals, compounds and powders matching those known to compose the surface material on Mars, and then melting the mix at high temperatures to form glass, which they then subjected to spectrographic analysis.
The team then compared the results of their analysis with spectral analyses of the surface of Mars carried out by the Imaging Spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – and found a very similar spectral signature in areas where such impact glass would be expected to form, such as around the central peaks of craters caused by meteorite impacts.