Named for the Roman god of war, Mars is a desolate wasteland of dust and rust-colored rock – at least, it is now. Actually, scientists believe that it was once Earth in miniature. Through decades of study, researchers at NASA have discovered that the surface of Mars used to feature water, possibly even life.
In the summer of 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 lander touched down on Mars, marking the first spacecraft to ever land on the Red Planet. The images Viking sent back were shocking. Though the planet was indeed frigid and barren, as scientists expected, it was clear that both wind and water had once flowed across its surface. In fact, it appeared the Viking had landed in the ruins of an ancient ocean.
Now, new research has shed even more light on the unusual sight. According to a study published in Scientific Reports on Thursday, NASA’s Viking lander might have touched down on the site of an ancient catastrophic megatsunami. The study suggests that the megatsunami occurred some 3.4 billion years ago, likely as a result of an asteroid similar to Chicxulub, the space rock that decimated the dinosaurs on Earth 66 million years ago.
When the asteroid hit a shallow ocean on the Martian surface, it caused an immense wave believed to reach more than 80 stories (866 feet) in height, the combined disasters resulting in devastation for the Red Planet.
NASA’s Viking 1 Sent to Research Potential for Life on the Red Planet
As lead study author Alexis Rodriguez explained, NASA’s Viking 1 was created to investigate the possibility of life on Mars. Five years before the Viking touched down, NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft spotted evidence of flood channels carving their way through the otherwise arid landscape.
“The lander was designed to seek evidence of extant life on the Martian surface,” he told CNN. “So, to select a suitable landing site, the engineers and scientists at the time faced the arduous task of using some of the planet’s earliest acquired images, accompanied by Earth-based radar probing of the planet’s surface.”
“The landing site selection needed to fulfill a critical requirement,” Rodriguez continued. “The presence of extensive evidence of former surface water. On Earth, life always requires the presence of water to exist.”
Scientists Discover Evidence of Planet-Killing Asteroid on Mars
At first, NASA believed the tale of destruction woven by Mars’ desolate surface was the result of space rocks and ancient volcanoes. This theory soon fell through, however, as there weren’t enough craters or lava fragments in the area.
“Our investigation provides a new solution,” Rodriguez said. “That a megatsunami washed ashore, emplacing sediments on which, about 3.4 billion years later, the Viking 1 lander touched down.”
Though scientists felt confident in this theory, finding the impact sight proved a difficult task. Through the tireless study of Martian maps, however, they believe they’ve found it. The crater in question stretches 68 miles across, in an area once blanketed by ocean water.
After testing different possible scenarios, scientists landed on a 1.8-mile asteroid slamming into the soft sea floor, unleashing 0.5 million megatons of TNT energy on the Martian surface. To put that into perspective, the most powerful nuclear bomb ever tested produced only 57 megatons of TNT energy. The megatsunami caused by the blast is thought to have reached 932 miles from the impact site.