mars insight lander

InSight lander becomes first spacecraft to detect a ‘Marsquake’

Image credit: reuters

Nasa’s InSight lander recorded what is believed to be the first “Marsquake” earlier this month.

On 6 April, the spacecraft’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, which contains silicon sensors developed in the UK, detected a “faint seismic signal”: the first time such an event has been recorded.

Scientists are still examining the data to conclusively determine the precise cause of the signal, but the trembling appeared to have originated from inside the planet, as opposed to being caused by forces above the surface, such as wind, according to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Professor Tom Pike, from Imperial College London, who leads the group of British scientists involved in the mission, said: “This is what we were all waiting for - the first quivering of the planet picked up by our sensors. We worked hard to develop the most sensitive silicon sensors on Earth to send to Mars as part of SEIS. Up to now we didn’t know if even that was going to be good enough.

“But it looks like Mars, although very much quieter than Earth, is giving us seismic signals we are able to clearly detect. Our first investigation of the interior of another planet is now under way.”

 insight Wind and Thermal Shield

InSight's domed Wind and Thermal Shield which covers its seismometer

Image credit: nasa

The tremor was so faint that a quake of the same magnitude in Southern California would be virtually lost among the dozens of tiny seismological crackles that occur there every day, JPL said.

The size and duration of the Marsquake also fit the profile of some of the thousands of Moonquakes detected on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1977 by seismometers installed there during Nasa’s Apollo missions.

InSight was sent to Mars to study the internal structure of the Red Planet and shed light on how rocky planets, moons and meteorites in the solar system formed.

Key components of SEIS are three seismic sensors developed by Imperial College London, Oxford University and the RAL Space laboratory in Didcot with £4m funding from the UK Space Agency. The instruments are sensitive enough to detect motion at sub-atomic scales. The SEIS picked up three other seismic signals on 14 March, 10 April and 11 April although these signals were even smaller than the event on 6 April and more ambiguous in origin.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Detecting these quakes on a planet 140 million miles from Earth is a spectacular feat of science and engineering - a testament to the UK’s world-leading science and engineering space sector, including our fantastic university research base.”

In December the British SEIS sensors captured the first sounds ever recorded directly from Mars. The low, haunting rumble was caused by vibrations from Martian wind.

Earlier this month it was reported that another probe, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), found little evidence of methane on the planet, a disappointing result considering the gas was thought to have been detected on previous occasions. 

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