NASA’s beleaguered InSight lander on Mars has detected a magnitude 5 ‘earthquake’ – the largest the spacecraft has ever felt since landing on the planet in November 2018. It’s a major moment coming during a difficult time for InSight, as the spacecraft’s solar collector panels continue to accumulate dust that will eventually end the life of the vehicle on Mars.
InSight’s mission to the Red Planet has been to probe the interior of Mars, primarily by detecting surface tremors. Unlike earthquakes here on Earth, which are usually caused by shifting tectonic plates, “marsquakes” are thought to be caused by Mars cooling over time, making the planet’s crust more fragile and cracks. Equipped with an extremely sensitive seismometer built by the French space agency, InSight has detected more than 1,313 earthquakes since landing three and a half years ago, according to NASA.
The initial earthquakes felt by InSight were of relatively small magnitude. So far, the largest earthquake detected by the spacecraft was a magnitude of 4.2. This latest 5-pointer, detected on May 4, is still quite weak compared to those we sometimes experience on Earth, but NASA says it’s close to the strongest type of earthquake scientists expect. see on Mars. Now the InSight team will dive into the earthquake data to learn more about its origin and scope. “Since we landed our seismometer in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for ‘the big one,'” NASA InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said in a statement. “This quake is sure to provide a view of the planet like no other.”
It’s a win for InSight, which has struggled since landing. The mission’s first major problem arose when the spacecraft attempted to deploy one of its main instruments shortly after landing: a thermal probe called a “mole”. Designed to burrow beneath the Martian surface to measure the planet’s internal temperature, the mole could never acquire the proper friction it needed to burrow deep into the ground. Destined to reach depths of up to 16 feet, the mole barely made it to just below the surface. Finally, after two years of testing, NASA decided to end attempts to dig up the mole in order to focus on InSight’s overall mission.
But InSight has also had a tough time lately. In January, a particularly thick Martian dust storm prevented enough sunlight from reaching InSight’s solar panels, reducing the spacecraft’s power supply. In response, InSight entered Safe Mode, a type of operating procedure in which the spacecraft ceases all but the most essential tasks it needs to survive. Eventually, InSight exited safe mode and started producing at full power again. But dust continues to accumulate on InSight’s solar panels, and the vehicle has no way of cleaning its hardware in any meaningful way (although NASA has tried a few unconventional techniques). Since there weren’t particularly strong winds to blow the dust away, InSight will eventually stop producing enough power to keep running, which is expected to happen later this year.
Despite all of this, InSight achieved its main objectives as planned. Its main mission ended in December 2020, and the lander is currently in its extended mission, which lasts until December 2022. As of now, there is still time to detect more mars quakes until until the current is exhausted.