Seismic activity has been detected and recorded for the first time by instruments from Nasa’s InSight spacecraft stationed on the surface of Mars.
The detection of the rumbling from the Martian interior, which was picked up by seismic sensors designed and built by British teams at Imperial College London and Oxford University, was hailed by Nasa as a “huge feat of engineering” and is an important step towards a better understanding of the planet’s structure and inner workings.
“Everyone delivered on their end of the deal to get the lander down safely, get the instruments there safe and working — but it was really up to the planet as to whether it delivered on its end too,” said Tom Pike, of Imperial College London’s department of electrical and electronic engineering, who designed one of the sensors.
“This $1 billion mission was put together on the basis that there’s something to see and there was an element of risk with a rather substantial price tag associated with it. It wasn’t just me feeling a little anxious,” he added.
InSight, the first mission to study the deep interior of another planet, landed on Mars in November after a seven-month, 91 million-mile journey and lifted the seismometer on to the surface the next month, using its robotic arm.
Whereas seismic activity on Earth has destroyed evidence of its ancient past, the interior of Mars is relatively intact. The data that InSight collects is therefore considered key to understanding how rocky planets, including Earth, were formed.
After months of waiting for action, the tremor or “marsquake” was detected on April 6 by both the British and French sensors installed on the seismometer. The size and duration of the quake were found to be similar to “moonquakes” detected during the Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s. On Earth such events are caused by the shifting of tectonic plates; on the moon and Mars, they are caused by the crust cracking from the stress of a continuous heating and cooling cycle.
“With this success, we have established the first generation of a new type of scientific research station,” Professor Pike said.