Microquakes Detected On Mars For The First Time

NASA's InSight lander deploying the Wind and Thermal Shield on Feb. 2, 2019 to cover the SEIS instrument. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars last November and is equipped with a fully functioning geophysical observatory. The instrument, known as SEIS, began its science mission on December 19 and researchers have now announced that it has detected faint tremors known as microseisms. This is the first time we have observed this phenomenon on another planet.

The findings were presented at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. SEIS team leader Philippe Lognonné provided an update on the instrument's placement and first science data, noting how it compares to data from the Viking lander, which arrived on Mars in the 1970s. Viking’s seismometer was on the lander and was affected by the Martian wind. SEIS was placed on the ground away from InSight’s main body, allowing for the exciting detection.

“We do believe that these signals are waves coming from Mars,” Lognonné, from Paris Diderot University, said at the conference, Science Magazine reports.

Detecting microquakes is not the seismographer's main goal; the researchers are hoping to measure full-sized quakes too. This would provide planetary scientists with invaluable data regarding Mars' interior and would allow us to understand the Red Planet like never before.

While not central to the science mission, the microseisms are still useful. They can inform the team of the properties of the Martian crust close to the lander. On Earth, studying microseisms has informed scientists about both sea states and subterranean structures.

SEIS is not the only off-lander instrument in InSight's impressive arsenal. The lander has also deployed HP3, aka “the mole”, a burrowing instrument that will measure the heat flow in the Martian ground once it reaches its goal position of 5 meters (16 feet) deep. The instrument started hammering in the ground but a rock got in its way, so it is currently awaiting further instructions from the team.

The third major instrument on InSight is called RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment) and will use radio waves to measure the rotation of Mars, as well as the planet's other movements. Given how these factors are linked to the internal structures of planets, researchers are very interested in getting hold of this data. InSight’s work is opening a new window into the formation of rocky planets. And its mission has only just begun.

[H/T: Science Magazine]

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