Science

Gaining a first ‘InSight’ into marsquakes

Pictured: A rendition of how the InSight lander may look on the surface of Mars. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Kammy Bogue

At around 7pm GMT on 26th November, NASA’s InSight Mars Lander is set to touch down on the red planet, where it will be gathering exciting new data on the structure of Mars. Its journey there will not be an easy one.

The InSight Lander took a number of very precise instruments on its voyage to Mars, including six top quality seismometers designed to hopefully measure marsquakes. Such an event would be so valuable because it would provide a tried-and-tested method to study the composition and structure of Mars as a whole; we’ve measured earthquakes here on Earth with seismometers for this exact purpose many times, and even tried the same thing before on the moon with very interesting results.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were the first to carry out off-world quake measurements, and though the instruments were not operational for long they provided the groundwork for more experiments on future Apollo missions. It was throughout these missions that minute moonquakes were measured which indeed revealed information on the moon’s interior, and NASA are hoping the same can be achieved on Mars.

Even though NASA has been successfully landing missions on Mars since 2001 with Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity, landing InSight will be no simple task. Although the landing process is predicted to take just six minutes, there are many processes that take place within this time which must all be completed perfectly for a successful landing.

For example, InSight will have to align itself after separation to enter the Martian atmosphere at 12 degrees; too shallow and it will bounce off, too steep and it will burn up. Its heat shield will also experience temperatures above 1,000 degrees, and also have to open a supersonic parachute and fire numerous small pyrotechnic charges in order to separate from its heat shield and deploy its landing gear. Its descent engines will fire in the final stages to lower it slowly to the ground, and if all goes to plan then InSight will be able to get to work.

It is worth remembering that the large majority of Mars is still a mystery to us, as our measurements have previously been confined to just the surface. InSight is set to help us fill in a large gap in our knowledge, which could have implications for understanding the formation and evolution of all rocky planets.

Having already made measurements on the seismic activity of the Earth and the Moon, Mars is the ideal in-between size that could really push forward our understanding of rocky planets as a whole and is particularly important as many believe that Mars once had an atmosphere just like the Earth’s.

To maintain an atmosphere, it is important for a planet to have a magnetosphere, a magnetic field which shields the planet from dangerous particles coming from the sun and prevents its atmosphere from being blown away. This is what current theory suggests happened to Mars and seeing as the magnetosphere of a planet is usually a result of the composition and dynamics of its core, finding out more about the internal composition of Mars could solve the mystery as to what happened to its atmosphere.

This is not the first time that marsquakes have attempted to be measured; NASA’s Viking missions in 1976 had this goal in mind, but all previous pursuits have been unsuccessful. Marsquake measurements would be so meaningful to study not only because of the more detailed picture of Mars’ structure it could give us, but also because it could provide evidence for the hypothesis of life on Mars. Life requires a dynamic environment to thrive, and marsquakes would be a form of energy that life could have potentially taken advantage of.

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