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Mars is More Alive Than You Probably Imagined, And Has More Quakes Than You Would Like

The two largest quakes detected by NASA's InSight appear to have originated in a region of Mars called Cerberus Fossae. Scientists previously spotted signs of tectonic activity here, including landslides. This image was taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.
(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The two largest quakes detected by NASA's InSight appear to have originated in a region of Mars called Cerberus Fossae. Scientists previously spotted signs of tectonic activity here, including landslides. This image was taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The InSight lander mission has also detected some weirdness with the planet’s magnetic field, which doesn’t exist anymore in the same way it probably did billions of years ago. But there are magnetizing ancient rocks which are now around 200 feet below the surface of Mars.

Vishal Mathur
  • Last Updated: February 26, 2020, 11:24 AM IST
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If you look at the photos, such as the one above, you would probably think Mars is an unwelcoming, hostile, unpredictable and dry while being completely bereft of life. At least for those who aren’t too enthused by the whole logic about aliens. But we might have to change our perception about Mars and its rather cold personality. The NASA InSight lander mission has completed one year on the planet and it tells us that Mars is more active than ever imagined. In fact, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS, has recorded more than 450 seismic activities in this period, and NASA says a vast majority of these are quakes. The most powerful quake recorded was about magnitude 4.0 in size.

NASA says that the seismic activity on Mars is more than on moon, but less than Earth. Mercifully. However, the red planet does not have tectonic plates in the same way as earth does. Which makes it even more interesting to understand why the planet shudders as much, and one of the reasons could be the active volcanic regions. “A pair of quakes was strongly linked to one such region, Cerberus Fossae, where scientists see boulders that may have been shaken down cliffsides. Ancient floods there carved channels nearly 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) long. Lava flows then seeped into those channels within the past 10 million years — the blink of an eye in geologic time,” says NASA.

Mars NASA InSight-2

In a paper published in Nature Geoscience, scientists say that until September 30, 2019, SEIS counted 174 quakes which included 150 high-frequency and low-magnitude events on the Martian crust while there were 24 higher-magnitude events that were below the crust. They say the high-frequency events that were recorded seem quite similar to those that the Apollo mission measured on the Moon’s surface.

None of the seismic activity has yet been powerful enough to travel far beneath the crust towards the core of the planet. Those are "the juiciest parts of the apple" when it comes to studying the planet's inner structure, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The InSight lander mission has also detected some weirdness with the planet’s magnetic field, which doesn’t exist anymore in the same way it probably did billions of years ago. But there are magnetizing ancient rocks which are now around 200 feet below the surface of Mars. "This magnetism must be coming from ancient rocks underground. We're combining these data with what we know from seismology and geology to understand the magnetized layers below InSight. How strong or deep would they have to be for us to detect this field?” says Catherine Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and the Planetary Science Institute. The newer rocks and the ones on the surface came much later and haven’t been magnetized by Mars’ earlier field.

Then there is the small matter of the swirling winds, which become visible when they collect grit from the surface and toss it around. “This site has more whirlwinds than any other place we've landed on Mars while carrying weather sensors,” says Aymeric Spiga, an atmospheric scientist at Sorbonne University in Paris.

NASA says the InSight has two radios—one for sending and receiving data while the other one is for measuring the wobble of the planet as it spins. That data will allow scientists to understand whether Mars’ core is solid or liquid. Less wobble would indicate a solid core, compared with a liquid core.

NASA believes that collecting and understanding data over a full Martian year (that would be two years here on earth, you peasants) would give scientists a much better understanding of the red planet. And that whether it has any signs that would indicate it could support life. Don’t pack your bags just yet. A SpaceX mission isn’t going there anytime soon.

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