NASA’s InSight Lander Records the Largest Marsquake Yet
We are in the waning days of NASA’s InSight mission, but the spirited Mars lander isn’t done with science just yet. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) reports that InSight has just detected another marsquake. That by itself is not unexpected — the mission detected many more seismic events than scientists expected, but this is the largest one yet, with five times the power of the previous record holder.
The big quake occurred on May 4 of this year, clocking in at a magnitude of 4.7, beating the 4.2 magnitude quake detected in 2021. “The energy released by this single marsquake is equivalent to the cumulative energy from all other Marsquakes we’ve seen so far,” says study co-author and seismologist John Clinton. Unsurprisingly, InSight continued detecting the reverberations of this mega-marsquake for 10 hours after the event. Other quakes only echoed for about an hour.
Marsquakes mostly fall into two different categories: high-frequency waves with rapid but shorter vibrations, and low-frequency, characterized lower surface movement but with larger amplitude. The new record-breaking quake is rare in that it had elements of both. The team has speculated that future research may find that previous high and low-frequency marsquakes are actually two aspects of the same seismic events.
The team estimates that the source of the quake was about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) from the lander. Still, the seismic waves came close to saturating the detector. Interestingly, that places the origin outside the Cerberus Fossae region, which is the most seismically active part of the planet. This is also where a separate team has proposed a subsurface mantle plume that could be a sign of continued geological activity on the red planet.
After landing in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars in 2018, InSight made history by deploying the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) on the surface. This was the first seismometer ever deployed on another planet, and scientists quickly realized that Mars is more active than previously assumed. InSight also attempted to use a burrowing heat probe called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, but the unexpected properties of Martian soil prevented the instrument from getting deep enough. NASA eventually called off this experiment.
While the mission didn’t go perfectly, InSight has made great contributions to our understanding of Mars. NASA announced several months ago that it expected InSight to go offline around the end of 2022 as its solar panels become increasingly caked with dust. Even if it shuts down tomorrow, the lander has far exceeded its original anticipated lifespan of two years.