Mars ‘monster’ earthquake shows Red Planet isn’t nearly dead

Mars ‘monster’ earthquake shows Red Planet isn’t nearly dead

A powerful earthquake recently shook the Martian desert.

NASA’s InSight lander – sent to probe the inner workings of Mars – observed the largest quake ever detected on another planet on May 4. Earth experiences much stronger earthquakes, but it’s also a world teeming with geological action, moving tectonic plates and lava flow.

“Mars is still active, but not as active as Earth,” Mark Panning, planetary scientist and NASA InSight lander project manager, told Mashable.

UPDATE: May. 17, 2022, 2:58 p.m. EDT NASA has announced that due to the power drop, the agency plans to end InSight’s science operations in the summer of 2022 and end the robotic mission altogether by the end of the year. .

For reference, a magnitude 5 earthquake on Earth is felt regionally, and possibly locally can cause structural damage (although building codes limit such impacts). But on Mars, it’s a “monstrous earthquake,” NASA noted. This tremor broke the previous earthquake magnitude record of 4.2.

“Mars remains active, but not as active as Earth.”

Mars experiences much less shaking than Earth because it does not have large tectonic plates moving and sliding on the surface. Most earthquakes on Earth occur at these dynamic boundaries. Additionally, Mars is only about half the size of Earth, which means it has been easier for Mars to lose much of its limited internal heat supply (which fuels volcanism) over the course of the Earth. of the last billions of years.

Yet Mars clearly still has strong geological life. As of May 10, InSight has recorded 1,313 earthquakes on Mars. And, crucially, the lander, located near Mars’ equator, doesn’t detect all Martian earthquakes — although it does detect tremors 1,000 miles away. “We don’t see the whole planet,” Panning said. (It is not yet known where the magnitude 5 quake originated.)

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a spectrogram showing a large earthquake on Mars

A spectrogram showing the strong Mars quake on May 4, 2022.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ETH Zurich

There is also evidence of relatively recent lava flows on Mars. An area called Cerberus Fossae contains lava flows that may be between 1 and 10 million years old, which is quite recent geologically. Magma, or molten rock, may still exist in some underground pockets. Rising Martian magma may have stressed the ground in places, triggering earlier tremors detected by InSight.

And a future eruption is not out of the picture. “There appears to be potential for ongoing volcanic eruptions on Mars,” Panning said.

One question that arises is how much longer InSight will record earthquakes on Mars. It landed in November 2018 and has been reliably recording tremors and other activity for years. But NASA admits the solar robot “faces new challenges” as dusty air coats its solar panels. It drops to dangerously low power levels. “On May 7, 2022, the lander’s available energy dropped just below the limit that triggers safe mode, where the spacecraft suspends all but the most essential functions,” NASA said. The space agency plans to provide an InSight update next week.

Regardless of impending news, the lander has given planetary scientists an unprecedented understanding of what’s happening below the surface of Mars. This knowledge will help us understand the intriguing rocky planets in our solar system and beyond.

“Understanding rocky planets means we need to understand more than Earth,” Panning said.

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