WASHINGTON, June 25 (Xinhua) -- New analysis of Mars'
terrain using NASA spacecraft observations reveals what appears to be by far the
largest impact crater ever found in the solar system, the U.S. space agency
announced on Wednesday.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global
Surveyor have provided detailed information about the elevations and gravity of
the Red Planet's northern and southern hemispheres.
An artistic representation, created from simulations, of the impact that gouged out a hole 5,200 miles (8,500km) across and 6,500 miles (10,600km) long in Mars. The giant crater made by an asteroid or comet explains why Mars is so lopsided, with a basin on one hemisphere and high terrain on the other, three separate teams of scientists said on June 25, 2008.(Xinhua/Reuters Photo)
A new study using this information suggests that a
giant northern basin that covers about 40 percent of Mars' surface, sometimes
called the Borealis basin, is the remains of a colossal impact early in the
solar system's formation, which must have been at least 3.9 billion years ago.
This may solve one of the biggest remaining mysteries
in the solar system: why does Mars have two strikingly different kinds of
terrain in its northern and southern hemispheres?
The mystery of the two-faced nature of Mars has
perplexed scientists since the first comprehensive images of the surface were
beamed home by NASA spacecraft in the 1970s. The main hypotheses have been an
ancient impact or some internal process related to the planet's molten
The impact idea, proposed in 1984, fell into disfavor
because the basin's shape didn't seem to fit the expected round shape for a
The newer data are convincing some experts who
doubted the impact scenario.
"We haven't proved the giant-impact hypothesis, but I
think we've shifted the tide," said Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, a researcher at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and other co-authors reported the new
findings in the journal Nature this week.
At about 8,500 km across, the Borealis basin is about
four times wider than the next-biggest impact basin known, the Hellas basin on
The Borealis basin on the northern hemisphere is also
one of the smoothest surfaces found in the solar system. The southern hemisphere
is largely high, rough, heavily cratered terrain, which ranges from 4 km to 8 km
higher in elevation than the basin floor.
An accompanying report calculates that the impacting
object that produced the Borealis basin must have been about 1,930 km across,
which is larger than the size of Pluto.
"This is an impressive result that has implications
not only for the evolution of early Mars, but also for early Earth's formation,"
said Michael Meyer, the Mars chief scientist at NASA.