NASA’s InSight Mars lander has detected the strongest quake ever detected not only on Mars but on any planet besides Earth. The temblor had an estimated magnitude 5 and on May 4, 2022. This adds to the catalog of more than 1,313 quakes InSight has detected since landing on Mars in November 2018. The largest previously recorded quake had an estimated magnitude 4.2 and was detected on August 25, 2021.
InSight was sent to Mars with a highly sensitive seismometer, provided by France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), to study the deep interior of the planet. As seismic waves pass through or reflect off material in Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, they change in ways that seismologists can study to determine the depth and composition of these layers. What scientists learn about the structure of Mars can help them better understand the formation of all rocky worlds, including Earth and its Moon.
In Earth terms, a magnitude 5 earthquake would be no big deal. On our planet, such earthquakes occur half a million times per year and rarely cause serious damage. (They may throw stuff off shelves and make windows crack, according to Los Angeles Times, and would wake you up at night).
Mars, however, is tectonically much more peaceful, and magnitude 5 is about as powerful a quake as scientists hoped for when they sent InSight to the Red Planet in 2018.
"Since we set our seismometer down in December 2018, we've been waiting for 'the big one,'" Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which leads the mission, said in a statement. "This quake is sure to provide a view into the planet like no other."
The large quake comes as InSight is facing new challenges with its solar panels, which power the mission. As InSight’s location on Mars enters winter, there’s more dust in the air, reducing available sunlight. On May 7, 2022, the lander’s available energy fell just below the limit that triggers safe mode, where the spacecraft suspends all but the most essential functions. This reaction is designed to protect the lander and may occur again as available power slowly decreases.
After the lander completed its prime mission at the end of 2020, meeting its original science goals, NASA extended the mission through December 2022.