Many different NASA-made landers, orbiters, and rovers have been sent to Mars over the years to study our red planetary neighbor, but perhaps one of the most exciting missions to be deployed in recent memory is the InSight lander, which teases to reveal Mars’ most profound secrets with the help of specialized instruments.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s InSight lander officially touched down on the Martian surface in November following a six-month journey through space, and it has already deployed most of its science instruments to accumulate data for planetary scientists. Among those was InSight’s SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) instrument, which was designed to detect marsquakes.
Mission scientists weren’t entirely sure that SEIS would even detect anything, but their suspicions were purportedly validated on April 6th when the instrument identified an unusual blip in its data stream. Those same scientists now say that this is likely the first-ever detection of a marsquake and that it’s unlikely to be interference from anything on the Martian surface.
“InSight’s first readings carry on the science that began with NASA’s Apollo missions,” said Bruce Banerdt, the InSight mission’s principal investigator. “We’ve been collecting background noise up until now, but this first event officially kicks off a new field: Martian seismology!”
Banerdt connects this discovery with the historic Moon-centric Apollo missions because part of those initiatives involved attempting to detect seismic activity on another world besides our own. NASA successfully distinguished moonquakes during the Apollo era, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the newfangled marsquake data resembles the moonquake data in terms of size and duration, among other things.
NASA published the following sound bite on YouTube, annotating the difference between Martian wind, the likely marsquake, and the InSight lander’s robotic arm:
NASA went on to explain that InSight’s SEIS instrument detected the likely marsquake 128 days after the lander touched down on the Martian surface (Sol 128). Moreover, SEIS allegedly detected three other signal disturbances on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133) respectively, but these weren’t as discernible as the one detected on Sol 128.
“We’ve been waiting months for a signal like this,” added Philippe Lognonné, the lead scientist behind the SEIS instrument. “It's so exciting to finally have proof that Mars is still seismically active. We're looking forward to sharing detailed results once we've had a chance to analyze them.”
Mars doesn’t exhibit shifting tectonic plates as the Earth does, and so scientists think the red planet’s quakes are caused by something entirely different. Planetary scientists are still trying to determine their source, as it could tell us more about how the planet formed. Fortunately, InSight comes equipped with all the instruments needed to study that department.
It should be interesting to see if InSight continues to capture larger marsquake signals, and more importantly, what NASA will learn from them.