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Marsquakes are nothing like earthquakes, and NASA is surprised

Published Dec 17th, 2020 8:30PM EST

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  • NASA’s Mars InSight lander has provided NASA with some interesting insights into the workings of the Red Planet.
  • One of the most surprising things is that marsquakes act much differently than earthquakes, and scientists have no idea why that is. 
  • Mars is also very noisy, at least from a geological perspective, with lots of rumbles happening regularly.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander was sent to the Red Planet to provide scientists with some literal insights into the inner workings of the planet. That includes listening for quakes and using the vibrations to paint a clearer picture of what lies deep beneath the surface. Sure, it’s had some issues with that self-burrowing “mole” tool, but aside from that, it’s performed quite well.

In a new blog post, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lays out the three biggest things that the space agency’s scientists have learned from the InSight mission. They’re all important, of course, but perhaps the most interesting to science fans like myself (and probably you) is that marsquakes are way, way different than earthquakes.

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The JPL’s trio of top things it’s learned from InSight starts with the fact that “faint rumblings are the norm.” The planet seems to have a habit of producing regular, faint quakes, but larger shaking is rare. In fact, the lander hasn’t managed to detect a quake larger than magnitude 3.7, which is fairly mild by Earth standards.

On top of that, actually detecting the quakes proved difficult during the windy season on the planet. The sensors that InSight uses to listen for quakes is shielded from the elements, but the winds on Mars are so intense that they cause vibrations in the ground, hiding the mild quakes that the lander was detecting on such a regular basis.

The third and most interesting thing, is that quakes on Mars are missing a vital component. On Earth, quakes have three parts. As NASA explains, there are two sets of “body waves” that roll through the planet’s guts deep beneath our feet and then surface waves that roll along the crust. NASA hopes that surface waves from marsquakes would provide a picture of the interior structure of the planet, perhaps even stretching as deep as 250 miles.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. In fact, of the hundreds of quakes that InSight has detected on Mars, none of them have produced a surface wave, and scientists are struggling to explain that strange fact.

“It’s not totally unheard of to have quakes without surface waves, but it has been a surprise,” Mark Panning, InSight mission lead, said in a statement. “For instance, you can’t see surface waves on the Moon. But that’s because the Moon has far more scattering than Mars.”

But what’s the deal with Mars? NASA suggests that it’s possible that “the lack of surface waves on Mars may be linked to extensive fracturing in the top 6 miles (10 kilometers) below InSight. It could also mean that the quakes InSight detected are coming from deep within the planet, since those wouldn’t produce strong surface waves.”

The jury is still out, but the finding is interesting nonetheless, and future research could help clear up this curious mystery.