A Meteorite Smashed Into Mars — And Left the Red Planet Black and Blue

An image of a Martian crater taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The blue-black crater was likely made between September 2016 and February 2019. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

For all the asteroids and comets that have slammed into its surface over the years, Mars has done a remarkable job of keeping its composure.

Sure, it's got its share of scars — the planet's thin atmosphere makes it an easy target for space stones that don't break up before impact — but it usually manages to keep that famously rosy red complexion.

That is until recently, when a meteorite smashed into Mars — and left it black and blue.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the impact crater in April, using its powerful High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Comparing it with images of the same area of the planet's Valles Marineris region, scientists suspect the impact was made between 2016 and as recently as a few months ago.

But what's most startling about this crater, estimated to be about 5 feet deep and 49 feet wide, is the color it reveals. Whatever walloped the red planet stirred up its trademark red dust and exposed something blue and even bruise-like beneath.

That splash of color marks an unusually creative turn for the normally taciturn planet.

"An impressionist painting?" mused the HiRise website in posting the image earlier this month. "No, it's a new impact crater that has appeared on the surface of Mars, formed at most between September 2016 and February 2019. What makes this stand out is the darker material exposed beneath the reddish dust."

A vivid sampling of Martian landscapes, as captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
A vivid sampling of Martian landscapes, as captured by the HiRISE camera. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Every year, an estimated 200 rocks batter our stoic neighbor. But this one may have finally unsettled Mars enough to reveal what lies beneath all that dust: a dark rocky surface, likely comprising basalt, interlaced with veins of blue ice.

It's not the kind of creative flare we see from the Martian landscape very often. In fact, Veronica Bray, the University of Arizona scientist who imaged the crater, tells Space.com she has never seen anything like it.

"It is a reminder of what's out there. It's a gorgeous [crater]. I'm glad I got it in the color strip."

But the source of the crater remains a bit of a "whoduggit?" Bray suggest the meteorite was likely composed of metal so dense it resisted breaking up in the planet's sparse atmosphere.

For a planet that must have seen it all, the stone was hard enough, it seems, to have made a lasting impression.