Mars is shaking. After several months of apprehensive waiting on a quiet surface, NASA’s InSight lander has registered a sweet, small sound: the first marsquake ever recorded. On 6 April, the lander’s seismometer detected its first verifiable quake, NASA and its European partners announced today.
The quake is tiny, so small that it would never be detected on Earth amid the background thrum of waves and wind. But Mars is dead quiet, allowing the lander’s sensitive seismometer to pick up the signal, which resembles similar surface ripples detected traveling through the moon’s surface after moonquakes. The quake is so small that scientists were unable to detect any waves tied to it that passed through the martian interior, defying efforts to estimate its exact location and strength, says Philippe Lognonné, a planetary seismologist at Paris Diderot University who leads the mission’s seismometer experiment. Still, it was gratifying to observe, he says. “It is the first quake. All the time, we were waiting for this.”
The detection is a milestone for the $816 million lander, kicking off a new field of “martian seismology,” added Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator and a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a news release. It proves Mars is seismologically active, and marks NASA’s return to planetary seismology after more than 4 decades. The mission is intended to peer through the planet’s rust-colored shell, gauging the thickness and composition of its crust, mantle, and core. But while on Earth, the lander was plagued by delay and cost overruns; since landing on Mars in a sand-filled hollow, the lander’s second instrument, a heat probe, got stuck soon after it began to burrow into the surface.
Scientists had good reason to believe that Mars hosted such quakes even though it lacks plate tectonics, the force that drives most earthquakes. The moon suggested so: Seismometers deployed by the Apollo program had detected quakes caused by meteorite impacts, the solar-driven thermal expansion of its crust, and the gravitational tug of Earth. But the frequency was unknown. The InSight team estimated it might see one a month, but that number could be much higher or lower. And so, after deploying the volleyball-size seismometer and its shield in early February, the researchers waited. The seismometer was working well, they found: It was picking up background vibrations, called microseisms, in the martian surface that were induced by wind. But still, as the weeks ticked by, no quakes.
The team now believes the seismometer needed time to settle on the surface. Week after week, background noise during martian nights has dropped. That allowed the 6 April detection and three other signals that could (or could not) be other marsquakes, detected on 14 March, 10 April, and 11 April. The 6 April quake is the only event to rise above minimum requirements set by the mission for detection, and it was observed by both the primary seismometer and a smaller, less sensitive sensor.
The quake reminds Yosio Nakamura, a planetary seismologist at the University of Texas in Austin who worked on Apollo seismology, of what the seismometer that Apollo 11 brought to the moon revealed during its 3 weeks of operation. The quakes the device recorded were mysterious, and it wasn’t until NASA’s Apollo 15 team established a network of three seismometers that scientists realized that some of what Apollo 11 recorded had actually been quakes from the moon’s deep interior.
“With a seismometer of better quality and better analysis techniques than what we had 50 years ago, I hope they can do better than what we did with the Apollo 11 data,” he says. “This may take a while, but we can wait.”
While listening for quakes, InSight’s seismometer has had another pressing engagement, serving as a diagnostic tool for the stuck heat probe. Engineers at JPL and the German Aerospace Center in Darmstadt, which designed and built the instrument, have spent several rounds tapping the probe’s rod with a tungsten hammer at its tip and using the seismometer to listen to the noise, hoping to understand the ground the heat probe is trapped in. It’s possible the probe’s rod is stuck in gravel, but the sandy ground could also not be providing enough friction for the probe to gain traction. Testing is continuing, with JPL’s engineers seeing whether a nudge from the lander’s robotic arm might help.
Meanwhile, this marsquake detection is just the start. As the lander’s 2-year primary mission continues, larger and larger quakes will likely be detected, Lognonné says. These will ultimately allow InSight to peer beneath the planet’s surface. “We’re starting to have many small quakes,” he says. By the end of the mission, he hopes, “we’ll have a super big quake.”