The northern hemisphere of Mars (shown in false color) is mostly lowlands (blue), while the southern hemisphere is higher and more mountainous. This elevation map of the Red Planet was created from data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor. MARS ORBITER LASER ALTIMETER SCIENCE TEAM
Planetary scientists now know how thick the Martian crust is, thanks to the strongest Marsquake ever observed.
On average, the crust is between 42 and 56 kilometers thick, researchers report in a paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters. That’s roughly 70 percent thicker than the average continental crust on Earth.
The measurement was based on data from NASA’s InSight lander, a stationary seismometer that recorded waves rippling through Mars’ interior for four Earth years. Last May, the entire planet shook with a magnitude 4.7 quake that lasted more than six hours (SN: 5/13/22). “We were really fortunate that we got this quake,” says seismologist Doyeon Kim of ETH Zurich.
The InSight lander’s camera captured an image of one of its solar panels covered in dust on February 14. NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s $800 million Mars lander is in an energy crisis.
InSight, which landed in a Martian plain called Elysium Planitia in 2018, has detected more than 500 Mars quakes, felt more than 10,000 dust devils pass by, and started to measure the planet’s core.
But over the past few months, InSight has been fighting for its life as the red planet’s unpredictable weather threatens to snuff out the robot.
Unlike other sites where NASA has sent rovers and landers — including the landing spot of the new Perseverance rover and its Mars helicopter — powerful gusts of wind have not been sweeping Elysium Planitia. These winds, called “cleaning events,” are needed to blow the red Martian dust off the solar panels of NASA’s robots. Without their help, a thick layer of dust has accumulated on InSight, and it’s struggling to absorb sunlight.
InSight’s solar panels were producing just 27% of their energy capacity in February, when winter was arriving in Elysium Planitia. So NASA decided to start incrementally turning off different instruments on the lander. Soon the robot will go into “hibernation mode,” shutting down all functions that aren’t necessary for its survival.
This view of Cerberus Fossae, created using stereo data collected by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows fault cracks cutting across the Red Planet. New data released from NASA’s InSight lander show this region is still active today. (Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)
Not far from Mars’ equator, a series of strange fissures rip deep into the Red Planet’s surface. The cracks of Cerberus Fossae run for hundreds of miles, cutting through craters, hills and everything in their path. Relatively young-looking volcanoes nearby, combined with trails of tumbling rocks, have long fueled speculation over whether the region is still active today.
Now, there’s no need to wonder anymore. In a series of papers published Monday in the journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications, scientists released the first 10 months of discoveries from NASA’s Mars InSight lander. Its findings, among many others, include a resounding answer to the mystery of Cerberus Fossae — the Red Planet is geologically active and bustles with marsquakes.
The InSight lander was designed to study martian seismology, geophysics, meteorology and magnetism. It carries the first working seismometer and first magnetometer to ever land on the Red Planet’s surface. And while InSight’s lack of wheels might bring fewer news headlines than a rover like Curiosity, astronomers say its findings will ultimately help them better understand the geological processes that have shaped our neighboring world.
InSight’s Heat Probe Partially Backs Out of Hole: This GIF shows NASA InSight’s heat probe, or “mole,” digging about a centimeter (half an inch) below the surface last week. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
NASA’s latest Mars lander is having problems with one of its main instruments — a self-hammering probe that just can’t seem to hammer itself into the interplanetary dirt. Over the weekend, the probe was attempting to dig itself into the Martian soil when it popped out of the ground unexpectedly. Now, NASA engineers are trying to troubleshoot to see if they can get this instrument to burrow underneath Mars’ surface as intended.
InSight’s second main instrument is the heat probe — nicknamed the mole. It’s supposed to hammer down into the ground just next to InSight and take Mars’ temperature. If it works as planned, it could give scientists more information about how much heat is leaving the planet’s interior. But the mole hasn’t had as much luck as the seismometer. In fact, it pretty much started having problems as soon as InSight got to the Red Planet. Since it started digging at the end of February, it hasn’t been able to travel more than 14 inches (35 centimeters), even though it’s designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters).
The InSight team thinks that the soil surrounding the mole may be to blame. While it digs, the mole needs the soil to fall around the probe uniformly, providing friction that allows the instrument to hammer farther underground. Otherwise, it’d just bob up and down in one place, according to NASA. But testing has indicated that the soil in this particular spot is unlike soil encountered by previous landers on Mars. It’s clumping around the probe and not providing any friction. That may explain the slow movement.
This animation illustrates Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
All of NASA’s spacecraft on Mars are about to find themselves on their own, running simplified routines and cut off from their masters on Earth. That’s because something big is about to come between the two planets — an electromagnetic energy source that’s too powerful to broadcast through or around: the sun.
During this period, known as the Mars solar conjunction, our home star and its corona pass between Earth and the Red Planet. Some radio signals might still get through, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but they aren’t reliable. Fortunately for all those distant robots, NASA knows this happens every couple years, and the machines are well prepared for the coming quiet period.
“Our engineers have been preparing our spacecraft for conjunction for months,” Roy Gladden, manager of the Mars Relay Network, said in the statement. “They’ll still be collecting science data at Mars, and some will attempt to send that data home. But we won’t be commanding the spacecraft out of concern that they could act on a corrupted command.”
This animation illustrates NASA’s InSight lander touching down on Mars, its thrusters setting a rock in motion. A little bigger than a golf ball, the rock was later nicknamed “Rolling Stones Rock” by the InSight team in honor of The Rolling Stones. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
For decades, the music of The Rolling Stones has had a global reach here on Earth. Now, the band’s influence extends all the way to Mars. The team behind NASA’s InSight lander has named a Martian rock after the band: ‘Rolling Stones Rock.’
The Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood – were delighted with the news and commented, “What a wonderful way to celebrate the ‘Stones No Filter’ tour arriving in Pasadena. This is definitely a milestone in our long and eventful history. A huge thank you to everyone at NASA for making it happen.”
A little larger than a golf ball, the rock appeared to have rolled about 3 feet (1 meter) on Nov. 26, 2018, propelled by InSight’s thrusters as the spacecraft touched down on Mars to study the Red Planet’s deep interior. In images taken by InSight the next day, several divots in the orange-red soil can be seen trailing Rolling Stones Rock. It’s the farthest NASA has seen a rock roll while landing a spacecraft on another planet.
In the early 1990s, NASA experienced a sea change in the way it approached space exploration. Gone were the days when all their programs would be massive projects with audacious goals. The bulk of NASA’s projects would fall under the Discovery Project and hew to the mantra “faster, better, cheaper,” with narrowly focused goals and smaller budgets, with as much reuse of equipment as possible.
The idea for what would become the Mars InSight mission first appeared in 2010 and was designed to explore Mars in ways no prior mission had. Where Viking had scratched the surface in the 1970s looking for chemical signs of life and the rovers of the Explorer program had wandered about exploring surface geology, InSight was tasked with looking much, much deeper into the Red Planet.
Sadly, InSight’s primary means of looking at what lies beneath the regolith of Mars is currently stuck a few centimeters below the surface. NASA and JPL engineers are working on a fix, and while it’s far from certain that that they’ll succeed, things have started to look up for InSight lately. Here’s a quick look at what the problem is, and a potential solution that might get the mission back on track.
Scientists have simulated the path of seismic waves rippling across the red planet. The ways in which quakes look and feel differ depending on the materials they’re traversing, meaning they may act very differently than what we’re used to here on Earth, the space agency explains
Scientists have simulated the path of seismic waves rippling across the red planet.
NASA’s InSight lander detected its first marsquake earlier this year, providing on-the-ground data for the first time on the behaviors of these natural phenomena on Mars.
The ways in which quakes look and feel differ depending on the materials they’re traversing, meaning they may act very differently than what we’re used to here on Earth, the space agency explains.
A new animation shows just how this might play out beneath the surface of Mars.
NASA’s Mars InSight lander has measured and recorded for the first time ever a likely “marsquake.”
The faint seismic signal, detected by the lander’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, was recorded on April 6, the lander’s 128th Martian day, or sol. This is the first recorded trembling that appears to have come from inside the planet, as opposed to being caused by forces above the surface, such as wind. Scientists still are examining the data to determine the exact cause of the signal.
“InSight’s first readings carry on the science that began with NASA’s Apollo missions,” said InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We’ve been collecting background noise up until now, but this first event officially kicks off a new field: Martian seismology!”
The new seismic event was too small to provide solid data on the Martian interior, which is one of InSight’s main objectives. The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.
“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.
NASA’s InSight lander places a protective, dome-shaped shield above its seismometer. JPL-CALTECH/NASA
After months of delicate maneuvering, NASA’s InSight lander has finished placing its hypersensitive seismometer on the surface of Mars. The instrument is designed to solve mysteries about the planet’s interior by detecting the booming thunder of “marsquakes.” But just a few weeks into its run, the car-size lander has already heard something else: the minute tremors that continually rock our red neighbor. If marsquakes are the drum solo, these microseisms, as they’re known, are the bass line.
The signal first became apparent in early February, as soon as the lander placed a protective shield over the seismometer, said Philippe Lognonné, a planetary seismologist at Paris Diderot University who heads the team that runs the instrument, in a talk here today at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. “We do believe that these signals are waves coming from Mars.” This is the first time, he said, that such microseisms have been detected on another planet.
On Earth, microseisms are ubiquitous, caused largely by the sloshing of the ocean by storms and tides. Mars, despite the dreams of science fiction writers, has no present-day oceans. Instead, this newly discovered noise is likely caused by low-frequency pressure waves from atmospheric winds that rattle the surface, inducing shallow, longer-period waves in the surface, called Rayleigh waves, Lognonné said.