In May 2022, a violent earthquake occurred on Mars.
The magnitude 4.7 quake would cause dishes to rattle and the wooden frames of a building to creak on Earth, but it would not be catastrophic for the region. But on Mars – a geologically much quieter world – such an event is still being considered a monster earthquakeat the limit of what planetary scientists would expect on the dry desert world.
Since the quake, scientists have rejoiced over the event, which was recorded by NASA’s InSight lander, its now-retired geological probe. Some researchers believed that such a large quake came from a meteor impacting Mars, since the planet is littered with meteor impacts. Still new research results published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Geophysical Research Lettersconcludes that the source of the large marsquake was deep within the planet.
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Unlike Earth, Mars has no erupting volcanoes or molten rock brewing near the surface. Giant structural or tectonic plates are unlikely to gradually move over hot, circulating rocks, forming mountain ranges on Earth and triggering earthquakes.
However, Mars could still see significant activity deep underground as the planet’s ancient rocky crust continues to evolve.
“We still assume that there is no active plate tectonics on Mars today, so this event was likely caused by the release of stresses in the Martian crust. These stresses are the result of billions of years of evolution, including cooling and shrinking of the crust in different parts of the planet at different rates,” Ben Fernando, who researches planetary geophysics at the University of Oxford and led the new study, said in a statement.
A spectrogram from the recording of a large earthquake (shown on the left) with the InSight lander in May 2022.
Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ETH Zurich
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Fernando and the research team used satellite images to search the surface of Mars. They searched for a potential meteorite cause that could have caused such strong tremors on Mars, and received image submissions from companies including the European Space Agency, the Chinese National Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. Shortly after May 4, 2022, they examined the landscape for fresh impacts or dust clouds.
None were found.
“We stand ready to work with scientists around the world to share and apply this scientific data to gain greater knowledge about Mars, and are proud to have provided data from the color imaging cameras on Tianwen-1 to help to contribute to this effort,” Jianjun Liu said in a statement from the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
NASA’s InSight seismometer covered in dust on the surface of Mars.
Image credit: InSight seismometer
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NASA’s InSight lander In 2022 the power went out, recorded over 1,300 marsquakes. In future missions, planetary scientists want to continue exploring Mars’ interior and recording quakes to improve our understanding of what’s happening beneath the Red Planet’s surface. There might even be places that are more vulnerable to relatively strong earthquakes.
“We still don’t fully understand why some parts of the planet appear to be under greater stress than others, but results like these help us investigate further,” Fernando said. “One day, this information could help us understand where it would be safe for humans to live on Mars, and where we might want to avoid it!”
This story has been updated with more information about marsquakes.