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NASA captures before and after shots of Mars impact crater

"It wasn't what I was looking for," Bruce Cantor admitted. "I was doing my usual weather monitoring and something caught my eye."

By Brooks Hays
NASA captures before and after shots of Mars impact crater
The 800-meter-wide (half-mile-wide) Victoria Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars, photographed by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is seen on July 18, 2009. Colors have been enhanced to make subtle differences more visible. UPI/NASA/JPL-caltech/University of Arizona | License Photo

PASADENA, Calif., May 23 (UPI) -- Scientists at NASA regularly scan aerial photographs of Mars looking for changes on its surface and in its atmosphere, studying its weather patterns. In doing so, they sometimes happen upon interesting finds -- like a fresh meteorite crater.

That's what happened to scientists Bruce Cantor, who has been going through imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California -- searching for evidence of dust storms and other observable weather events.

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But Cantor recently noticed a fresh black dot in one of the images from 2012, and decided to check if the same dot was there several months prior. It wasn't.

Using a backlog of imagery from the orbiter's Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera and its telescopic Context Camera (CTX), Cantor was able to slowly hone in on the exact date of the impact. Once it was determined that it was a fresh impact, Cantor used the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) to get a close-up look.

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He and his colleagues found a second slightly smaller crater and several mini impressions, evidence of fragments that hit alongside the bigger meteorite.

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"It wasn't what I was looking for," Cantor admitted. "I was doing my usual weather monitoring and something caught my eye. It looked usual, with rays emanating from a central spot."

A crater on Mars isn't such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. The Red Planet's super thin atmosphere means space rocks regularly penetrate and strike its surface, whereas most meteors gunning for Earth burn up in its upper atmosphere.

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But it's the first time a fresh crater has been discovered with MARCI, instead of a high-resolution camera. NASA scientists are also interested in craters because of the information they might provide about the Martian subsurface.

"Studies of fresh impact craters on Mars yield valuable information about impact rates and about subsurface material exposed by the excavations," said Leslie Tamppari, deputy project scientist for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. "The combination of HiRISE and CTX has found and examined many of them, and now MARCI's daily coverage has given great precision about when a significant impact occurred."

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