NASA: Scientists Studying Earthquakes on Mars To Learn How Planets Are Formed

Deep below the surface of Mars is a mysterious place—we still don't quite understand what it looks like. But scientists think the interior may hide clues that help them piece together the planet's early days. That, in turn, could shed light on how all planets, not just Mars, formed.

In May, NASA plans to launch its next mission to Mars, a lander called InSight. Once that lander arrives, it will carefully place a trio of instruments on the Red Planet's surface. One of those instruments is a seismometer, the same sort of device that measures earthquake tremors here at home. Mars experiences smaller but similar shakes, and scientists hope studying them will help map the planet's interior.

Those seismometers track waves of energy moving through the rock that makes up a planet. Here on Earth, scientists know how to match the speed of those waves to characteristics of the rock—for example, they move more quickly through cooler rock.

That means scientists can track these seismic waves, then work backwards to make inferences about the deep structure of a planet. That's how, for example, they spot places where heat is leaking from the core of the planet.

But here on Earth, scientists can tap into networks of sometimes hundreds of seismometers, which lets them pinpoint the location of different underground features quite precisely. In contrast, the Mars InSight team will have just one instrument to measure seismic waves. That means they'll need to study more individual quakes in order to get the same level of detail about the interior structure of Mars.

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The scientists expect the instrument will pick up dozens or even hundreds of marsquakes during its time on the Red Planet. It should also be able to make similar measurements when small meteorites land on the surface.

NASA's Mars InSight lander will carry a seismometer, pictured at front, to measure marsquakes. NASA

Technically, NASA tried to make similar measurements during the 1970s with the Viking landers. Although those robots carried seismometers, they didn't actually manage to place those instruments directly on the surface, where they could pick up seismic waves in earnest.

"It was a handicapped experiment," Mars InSight scientist Bruce Banerdt said in a press release. "I joke that we didn't do seismology on Mars—we did it three feet above Mars."

With InSight, they'll get a new opportunity to do it right. Similar work on the Moon during Apollo missions was more successful than the Viking attempts. In addition to measuring natural moonquakes, astronauts even crashed rocket parts into the surface to provide more data.

On Mars, the team will be limited to just the shakes that occur naturally. But they think the planet's natural activity will be enough to start shedding light on its deepest secrets.