May 26, 2022

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NASA’s InSight lander has detected the largest earthquake on Mars

NASA's InSight lander has detected the largest earthquake on Mars

NASA’s Insight probe detected the largest earthquake ever found on another planet – a quake of magnitude 5 on the red planet on May 4.

“Since we tuned our seismometer in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for the large seismometer,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

“This earthquake is sure to provide a view of the planet like no other. Scientists will be analyzing this data to learn new things about Mars for years to come.”

Since the stationary spacecraft landed on Mars in 2018, Insight has detected more than 1,313 earthquakes. To date, the largest was 4.2 on the Richter scale and occurred on August 25, 2021.

Martian earthquakes are similar to the earthquakes we see on Earth, but they differ slightly when it comes to why they occur on each planet. On Earth, this event would be a medium-sized earthquake — but it would set a new record for seismic activity discovered by scientists studying Mars.

When we feel earthquakes, it is because the tectonic plates on the Earth are moving and moving and grinding against each other. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.

Mars crust structure

So how do earthquakes occur on Mars? Think of Mars’ crust as one giant plate. This crust has cracks and fissures inside because the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This puts pressure on the crust of Mars, stretching and cracking.

When swamp seismic waves travel through different materials within Mars, they allow scientists to study the planet’s structure. This helps them understand the mysterious interior of Mars and apply this research to learn how other rocky planets form, including our own.

The illustration shows NASA's InSight lander sitting on the surface of Mars with layers beneath the planet's surface below.
An incredibly sensitive seismometer, called the Inner Structure Seismic Experiment, has the ability to detect earthquakes from hundreds and thousands of miles away. Data collected by InSight so far Uncover new details about unknown Mars’ core and mantle.

The science team at InSight continues to analyze the earthquake to better understand its origin, source, and what it might reveal about the Red Planet.

Other weather forecasts could help future Mars explorers access this vital resource

The mission faces new challenges as Mars enters winter when more dust is lifted into the air. These floating particles reduce sunlight needed to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently on an extended mission that will run through December.

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On May 7, the lander entered safe mode when its power levels dropped, causing it to stop all but basic functions. The team expects this to happen more in the future as dust levels increase.

The constant flow of data to scientists on Earth from InSight will stop when solar cells can’t generate enough power, which could happen by the end of this year. But researchers will study the discoveries InSight has made for decades to come in order to learn as much as possible about our mysterious planetary neighbor.