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Mars Sure Is Quakin'

Jennifer Leman
Photo credit: IPGP/Nicolas Sarter

From Popular Mechanics

  • NASA's Insight lander has chronicled abundant seismic activity across Mars's surface.
  • Insight landed on the red, rocky planet in 2018, and has since recorded over 450 "Marsquakes."
  • Observations from the lander's magnetosphere have revealed the planet may have some residual magnetism after all.

For the last 10 months, NASA's Insight lander has poked and prodded the surface and subsurface of Mars, in an effort to better understand the red planet's geology. Now, the results are in, and the lander has unearthed a treasure trove of information about the seismically active planet.

“We’ve finally, for the first time, established that Mars is a seismically active planet,” geophysicist Bruce Banerdt, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said in a news conference Thursday.

In a slew of papers published this week in the journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Communication, researchers report on the geologic conditions that make the Red Planet wiggle, quiver, and shake. Insight plopped down into a dusty crater inside Mars's Elysium Planitia in 2018, and has since endeavored to probe the planet's guts.

Instruments and Observations Galore

The lander is equipped with two main instruments, in addition to cameras and other sensors. It has a burrowing heat probe—affectionately known as "the mole"—which aims to measure temperature variations in the planet's soil. Unfortunately, the probe recently became stuck in the top layers of Mars's soil. Technicians here on Earth have been remotely tinkering with the mole in an effort to get it to burrow deeper.

And then there all the ultra sensitive seismometers.

In April 2019, Insight recorded its very first Marsquake and transmitted the data back to excited scientists here on Earth. Within the first 10 months of operation, Insight had recorded 174 seismic events. Most of the quakes (about 150) were shallow, some (around 24) were deeper. All of them landed within the magnitude 3 to 4 range and wouldn't have been felt by humans had they occurred on Earth. As of this week, the lander has registered around 450 quakes.

Researchers believe quakes are rattling the red planet because it's cooling. Mars doesn't have an active network of tectonic plates like Earth. As the once-warm planet chills, its brittle outer layers begin to shrink, causing the surface to crack apart.

Cerberus Fossae, a network of fractures on Mars's surface around 1,000 miles to the east of Elysium Planitia, registered a particularly high number of quakes. Deputy principal investigator Sue Smrekar, of JPL, posited during the press event that the quakes could also be the result of a cooling magma chamber, which would cause rock around it to break apart.

Ultimately, the goal is to better understand Mars's mysterious interior. Like Earth, Mars is suspected to have layers.

Martian Magnetism

Another useful tool in the lander's toolbox, its magnetometer, recorded interesting observations on the planet's surface. Everything we know about Mars magnetism comes from orbiters that circle the planet. Insight's magnetometer is the first on the red planet.

Observations from the instrument revealed that Mars's magnetic field may be up to 10 times stronger than scientists anticipated. There's also evidence that rocks deep below the surface have retained some of their magnetic properties, recording the remnants of the planet's long-gone magnetic field.

Mars once had a protective magnetic shield like Earth does. Around 3.5 billion years ago, the planet's liquid metal core powered a robust protective magnetic shield, geophysicist Catherine Johnson, of Canada’s University of British Columbia and Arizona’s Planetary Science Institute, told The Washington Post.

Thanks to our planet's own shield, we're protected from harmful radiation and solar flares. Engineers and scientists are working to find a way to safeguard astronauts during future missions to Mars.

Insight also captured images of glistening nighttime clouds and watched thousands of dust devils, known as pressure vortexes, whirl around the planet's surface. Despite the hardships Insight has faced, the lander is illuminating the wonders of the Red Planet.

"This is really going to, I think, revolutionize our understanding of the interaction of the atmosphere with the surface of Mars," Banerdt said during the teleconference. "That's one of the things that's really going to open up a whole new window of research on Mars."

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