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Emily LakdawallaDecember 21, 2007

Alert the Martian Defense Force!

Several weeks ago, I received a question from a reader to the effect of: are any of the surveys that turn up near-Earth asteroids also checking to see if there are any small bodies in the solar system on target for a Mars impact? I asked Steven Chesley, who I'd recently seen at DPS giving an interesting talk on communicating impact risks, and he told me that "as far as I know, nobody is looking specifically for Mars impactors. We, and a couple of other groups, check all NEAs [near-Earth asteroids] for close approaches to all planets and large asteroids, but there are many Mars-crossers that are not NEAs and these do not get checked. On the other hand, the non-NEA Mars-crossers that have been discovered so far will tend to the large side since these objects are necessarily farther from Earth, and thus fainter." I turned this in to a Q&A that I used on the November 5 Planetary Radio show, and a more detailed version wound up in the Questions and Answers column in the latest issue of The Planetary Report.

So it's quite a coincidence that on November 20, the Catalina Sky Survey spotted a new object that now bears the name 2007 WD5 on a course that passes near Earth. When observations from two other near-Earth asteroid monitoring facilities, Spacewatch (at Kitt Peak) and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (in New Mexico), were used to flesh out the shape of WD5's orbit, it was discovered that although the asteroid doesn't pose a danger to Earth, it could impact Mars, and soon. Its orbit will pass within 50,000 kilometers of Mars on January 30. The predicted flyby is based upon a relatively small number of observations along a relatively short arc of its orbit, so there's a significant amount of uncertainty, enough that there is a nonzero probability (the current estimation is 1 in 75) that WD5's actual course intersects Mars on January 30.

WD5 is approximately 50 meters in diameter, so if it did hit, it would be a good-sized bang, producing a crater about a kilometer in diameter. (This is pretty close to the size of Victoria crater, Opportunity's haunt.) Chesley estimates that such a bang happens on Mars about once every thousand years.

The beauty of Victoria

Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech /Cornell

The beauty of Victoria
Victoria crater is about 800 meters in diameter. When it was originally blasted out of the Martian plains by a 50-meter-diameter asteroid, the crater would have been much deeper, with much more obvious deposits spraying out from its rim; Victoria has been filled in, and its ejecta blanket eroded, since it formed.

Opportunity captured this vista of Victoria crater from the viewpoint of Cape Verde, one of the promontories that are part of the scalloped rim of the crater. The rover drove onto Cape Verde shortly after arriving at the rim of Victoria in September 2006. The top of Cape Verde is in the immediate foreground at the center of the image. To the left and right are two of the more gradually sloped bays that alternate with the cliff-faced capes or promontories around the rim of the crater. Duck Bay, where the rover first reached the rim, is to the right. Beyond Duck Bay counterclockwise around the rim, is Cabo Frio. On the left side of the panorama is Cape St. Mary, the next promontory clockwise from Cape Verde.

As with potential Earth impactors, further study of WD5's orbital path will almost certainly reduce the impact probability to zero; but there's always the possibility that further study will make it clear that the object will actually crash into Mars. If that happened, it would be awfully cool. Asteroid impacts and their effects are tremendously important to the histories of solid bodies in the solar system. To be able to measure, however indirectly, the effects of an asteroid impact in real time would provide a piece of data for impact scientists that you could not possibly plan or create in the lab. People who care about impacts can look at huge craters, and they can make little tiny ones in the lab using huge and expensive facilities like the Vertical Gun Range at NASA's Ames Research Center. It's so hard to bridge the gap between the little tiny lab craters and the great big ones on planets that any data of any kind on a real live impact as it happens on Mars would be of immense value.

I don't believe we would actually be able to see the flash from an impact from Earth. However, Chesley says that this size of an impact should create a dust plume that could be detected by one of the orbiters; even the rovers could detect a change in the dust component of the sky. And of course a 1-kilometer crater would be a pretty big target for HiRISE and CRISM on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- in fact, that's quite big enough to be an interesting target for all the cameras on all the orbiters at Mars. You'd probably need to spot it first with one of the lower-resolution cameras, then zero in for a detailed look with one of the higher-resolution ones.

It's best not to get too excited, because the likelihood of an impact is pretty low. But it's certainly worth following up on to see if celestial mechanics will supply us with a natural experiment to study what happens when rocks slam in to planets. Unfortunately, from what Chesley says in a JPL podcast on the topic, it doesn't seem like this is a situation where amateurs will be able to do much to help the tracking effort; he says that "some of the biggest telescopes on the planet" will be required to do the followup. I expect I will be following up later this month to tell you that WD5 will miss Mars -- but I sure hope that WD5 turns out to have Mars' name on it!

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Emily Lakdawalla

Solar System Specialist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

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