NASA’s InSight lander has been on Mars for more than a year now, and it’s slowly revealing new facets of the red planet’s story. We used to think of Mars as a dead world, but missions like InSight have increasingly shown there’s a little life left in Mars. In a series of newly published papers, NASA scientists report that InSight has detected more than 450 marsquakes in the last year. That’s more than they expected to detect, but the magnitude is lower than the team had hoped.
InSight is a stationary lander that touched down in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars in November 2018. This mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program to launch solar system exploration missions at a lower cost than the flagship missions like Curiosity and OSIRIS-REx. InSight became the first probe to take seismic measurements on another planet, and the total cost was just $830 million. By comparison, Curiosity has cost about $2.5 billion so far.
InSight has several instruments, including the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3) that keeps popping out of the ground. The new studies focus on data from the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) that records and measures marsquakes. NASA took great pains to make sure the instrument was deployed correctly — scientists even created a model of the landing zone here on Earth to conduct test runs before the real deal. NASA placed the dome-shaped SEIS package on the surface about a month after landing, and InSight recorded the first marsquakes the following April.
Mission scientists are pleased to see marsquakes are so common on the red planet, but they’re dismayed the magnitude is so low. The most powerful quake only registered a 4.0. The team had hoped a powerful marsquake would allow InSight to get readings from deeper in the planet’s mantle and possibly even the core. That could help us better understand rocky planets other than Earth, which is obviously the only such planet we’ve been able to study in detail.
Unfortunately, we may never detect the kind of seismic activity the team hoped to see. Marsquakes are fundamentally different than earthquakes, which are a product of Earth’s tectonic plate activity. Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates — planetary scientists believe the quakes are a product of volcanically active regions of the crust cooling over time.
InSight is designed to operate for about two more years. As with most deep-space missions, its run could be extended indefinitely as long as it continues to function.
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