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New 5.0 marsquake is biggest yet detected

Marsquake: Graph with many bright points on bottom and other vertical lines.
Spectrogram from the InSight Mars lander, showing the biggest marsquake detected so far, at magnitude 5.0, detected earlier this month. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ ETH Zurich.

Earthquakes are common on our planet, and they can be big, with devastating consequences. The planet next outward from the sun, Mars, has quakes, too, which we’ve seen as milder so far. NASA’s InSight lander has been recording marsquakes since it set down on Mars in 2018. So far, the quakes have been low-key, up to magnitude 4.2. But on May 4, 2022 – the 1,222nd sol (Martian day) of the InSight mission – the lander felt its largest marsquake yet, at a record magnitude 5.0. It’s not just the biggest marsquake. It’s the biggest quake detected on another planet so far.

Earthquake magnitude scale.
Earthquake magnitude scale, via Michigan Tech.

The ‘big’ one

On Earth, magnitude 5.0 is a medium-sized quake. On Mars, however, it’s near what scientists believe is the upper limit in quake strength.

Mission scientists refer to this new quake as “the big one.” The biggest so far, anyway. Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) stated:

Since we set our seismometer down in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for ‘the big one.’ This quake is sure to provide a view into the planet like no other. Scientists will be analyzing this data to learn new things about Mars for years to come.

As NASA tweeted on May 9:

As of right now, scientists are still pinning down the exact location of the quake and how it occurred. Mars doesn’t have active plate tectonics like Earth does, but evidence has grown in recent years that the planet is still geologically active below the surface. Indeed, the latest big quake proves that Mars is still “rocking and rolling” today.

Graph with sudden high zigzag lines fading back down to level over time.
Seismogram of the magnitude 5.0 marsquake detected by InSight on May 4, 2022. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

New marsquake is the latest of many

Indeed, InSight has now recorded no less than 1,313 mars quakes so far. Previously, the largest quake detected was magnitude 4.2, on August 25, 2021.

Scientists had suspected that Mars still rumbled a bit below the surface, but InSight is the first mission to confirm it.

How many more times will InSight feel the Martian subsurface tremble?

A dusty problem

InSight’s mission has been incredibly successful overall, since it landed in Elysium Planitia on November 26, 2018. (Apart from the frustrating problems with its “mole” heat probe instrument.) At the moment, it is facing some new challenges, however. There is a lot more dust in the Martian air right now, which affects the lander’s solar panels. In fact, on May 7, the power level of the solar panels dipped below the limit where safe mode is enabled. During safe mode, only the most necessary functions of the rover still operate. As with safe mode on other spacecraft, this helps to protect the lander until power levels rise again. It’s kind of like a temporary hibernation.

InSight also entered, and then later exited, safe mode last January, after a dust storm kicked up large amounts of dust. Hopefully, InSight will be back to normal operations again soon this time as well!

Smiling man staning outside with sharp, snowcapped mountains in the background.
Bruce Banerdt at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the Principal Investigator for the InSight Mission. Image via NASA/ JPL.
Complicated machine with two large umbrella-shaped solar panels, seen from above.
View larger. | This “selfie” taken by InSight shows dust on the solar panels. Recently, a lot more dust has accumulated, requiring the lander to go into safe mode. This image is a combination of 14 images taken between March 15 and April 11, 2019. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

NASA will be providing a media teleconference update on the status of InSight on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at 2 p.m. EDT (11 a.m. PDT).

Mission goals

The InSight mission has two main goals. The first is to understand the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets through investigation of the interior structure and processes of Mars. The other primary objective is to determine the present level of tectonic activity and meteorite impact rate on Mars. InSight has already provided unprecedented insight into the geological history of Mars and potential habitability.

Bottom line: NASA’s InSight lander has just detected the biggest marsquake so far in its mission. Insight felt “the big one,” a record magnitude 5.0, on May 4, 2022.

Read more about the InSight mission

Via NASA

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