By Ashley Strickland, CNN
This is the big one scientists have been anticipating.
The NASA InSight lander just detected the biggest quake ever found on another planet — a marsquake with a magnitude of 5 that took place on the red planet on May 4.
“Since we set our seismometer down in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for ‘the big one,'” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
“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.”
Since the stationary spacecraft touched down on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,313 quakes. Until now, the largest had a magnitude of 4.2 and it occurred on August 25, 2021.
Marsquakes are like the earthquakes we experience on Earth, just a little bit different when it comes to why they occur on each planet. On Earth, this event would be a medium-size quake — but it reaches a new record for seismic activity detected by scientists studying Mars.
When we experience earthquakes, it’s because the tectonic plates on Earth are shifting, moving and grinding against one another. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.
Structure of Martian crust
So how do quakes occur on Mars? Think of the Martian crust as a single giant plate. This crust has faults and fractures within it because the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This puts stress on the Martian crust, stretching and cracking it.
When the seismic waves of marsquakes travel through different materials within the Martian interior, it allows scientists to study the planet’s structure. This helps them to understand the mysterious Martian interior and apply this research to learn how other rocky planets, including our own, are formed.
The lander’s incredibly sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, has the ability to detect marsquakes from hundreds and thousands of miles away. The data collected by InSight so far has revealed new details about the little-known Martian core and mantle.
The InSight science team continue to analyze the quake to better understand its origin, source and what it may reveal about the red planet.
The mission is experiencing new challenges as Mars enters the winter season when more dust is lofted into the air. These floating particles reduce the sunlight necessary to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently working on an extended mission that lasts through December.
On May 7, the lander went into safe mode when its energy levels dropped, causing it to cease everything but essential functions. The team anticipates this could happen more in the future as dust levels increase.
InSight’s steady stream of data heading to scientists on Earth will stop when the solar cells can no longer generate enough power, which could happen by the end of this year. But researchers will be studying the detections made by InSight for decades to come in order to learn as much as possible about our enigmatic planetary neighbor.
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