NASA’s InSight lander has just detected the largest earthquake ever seen on another planet – a magnitude 5 earthquake that hit the Red Planet on May 4.
“Since we landed our seismometer in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for ‘the big one,’” Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.
“This earthquake is sure to provide a view of the planet like no other. Scientists will analyze 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. The largest so far had a magnitude of 4.2 and it occurred on August 25, 2021.
Earthquakes are like the earthquakes we experience on Earth, just a little different as to why they happen on each planet. On Earth, this event would be a medium-sized earthquake, but it hits a new record in seismic activity detected by scientists studying Mars.
When we experience earthquakes, it is because the Earth’s tectonic plates are moving, shifting and rubbing against each other. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.
Structure of the Martian crust
So how do earthquakes happen on Mars? Think of the Martian crust as one giant slab. This crust contains faults and fractures as the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This puts pressure on the Martian crust, stretching it and cracking it.
When seismic waves from earthquakes travel through different materials inside Mars, it allows scientists to study the structure of the planet. It helps them understand the mysterious Martian interior and apply that research to learn how other rocky planets, including our own, form.
The InSight science team continues to analyze the earthquake to better understand its origin, source, and what it may reveal about the Red Planet.
The mission faces new challenges as Mars enters the winter season when more dust is thrown into the air. These floating particles reduce the sunlight needed to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently working on an extended mission that lasts until December.
On May 7, the lander went into safe mode when its energy levels plummeted, causing it to shut down all but essential functions. The team predicts that this may happen more in the future as dust levels increase.
InSight’s steady stream of data to scientists on Earth will stop when solar cells can no longer generate enough power, which could happen by the end of this year. But researchers will study the detections made by InSight for decades to come to learn as much as possible about our enigmatic planetary neighbor.