NASA’s InSight Lander detects the largest ‘marsquake’ ever recorded on the Red Planet

NASA’s InSight spacecraft on Mars has detected a magnitude 5 “marsquake” – the largest the spacecraft has felt since landing on the planet in November 2018. Panels continue to accumulate dust that will eventually end the rover’s life on Mars.

InSight’s mission on the Red Planet has been to probe the interior of Mars, primarily by detecting tremors on the surface. Unlike earthquakes here on Earth, which are typically caused by shifting tectonic plates, marsquakes are believed to be caused by the cooling of Mars over time, which causes the planet’s crust to become more fragile and cracked. Equipped with an extremely sensitive seismometer built by the French space agency, InSight has detected more than 1,313 earthquakes since landing three and a half years ago, according to NASA.

The initial earthquakes InSight felt were of relatively low magnitude. So far, the largest marsquake the spacecraft had detected was a magnitude 4.2. This last 5 pointer, detected on May 4, is still quite faint compared to the ones we sometimes experience on Earth, but NASA says it’s close to the strongest type of earthquake scientists expect to see on Mars. Now, the InSight team will delve into the earthquake data to learn more about its origin and range. “Since we put up our seismometer in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for the ‘big,'” Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA, said in a statement. “This earthquake will certainly provide a view of the planet like no other.”

A spectrogram of the magnitude 5 earthquake detected by InSight.
Image: NASA

It’s a win for InSight, which has struggled since its landing. The mission’s first major problem arose when the spacecraft tried to deploy one of its key instruments shortly after landing: a heat probe called a “mole”. Designed to dig under the Martian surface to measure the planet’s internal temperature, the mole could never acquire the right friction needed to dig deep into the ground. Intended to reach a depth of up to 16 feet, the mole barely managed to get just below the surface. Finally, after two years of trying, NASA decided to end the mole excavation attempts to focus on the overall InSight mission.

But InSight is also having a hard time lately. In January, a particularly thick Martian dust storm blocked sunlight from reaching InSight’s solar panels, cutting off the spacecraft’s power supply. In response, InSight entered safe mode, a type of operating procedure in which the spacecraft interrupts all but the most essential tasks it needs to perform in order to survive. Eventually, InSight came out of safe mode and started producing full power again. But dust continues to accumulate on InSight’s solar panels, and the vehicle has no way to significantly clean its hardware (although NASA has tried some unconventional techniques). As there were no particularly strong winds to blow the dust away, InSight will eventually stop producing enough power to keep running, which should happen later this year.

Despite all this, InSight delivered on its key objectives as expected. Its main mission ended in December 2020, and the lander is currently on its extended mission, which lasts until December 2022. As of now, there is still time to detect more earthquakes until the power runs out.

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