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Landed on 26/11/2018 at 21:52:59
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Taking Mars' pulse at ETH Zurich?

NASA's unmanned InSight mission will make this possible by landing geophysical instruments on the surface of the Red Planet, allowing us to explore its interior. The instruments on board will include a seismometer to record marsquakes and meteorite impacts. Several groups at ETH Zurich are responsible for the sensor's data acquisition and control electronics and will evaluate and interpret the acquired data.



Online museum tours about Mars and the InSight mission

The team of focusTerra, the Earth Science Research and Information Centre of ETH Zurich, has made an enjoyable web video about the InSight mission (in German). Very entertaining and understandable they explain the background and goals of the mission and give insights into the first evaluation of the marsquakes. Well worth seeing!

If you would like to learn more about Mars, you will find more information in the "Next Stop: Mars" online tours from focusTerra (in German). Get on board and fly to the red planet in the three-part online tour!


The seismicity of Mars

The seismicity of Mars

Fifteen months after the successful landing of the NASA InSight mission on Mars, first scientific analyses of ETH Zurich researchers and their partners reveal that the planet is seismically active. The recorded data enables a better understanding of the interior of Mars, the primary goal of the InSight mission.

On 26 November 2018, the NASA InSight lander successfully set down on Mars in the Elysium Planitia region. Seventy Martian days later, the mission’s seismometer SEIS began recording the planet’s vibrations. A team of researchers and engineers at ETH Zurich, led by ETH Professor Domenico Giardini, had delivered the SEIS control electronics and is responsible for the Marsquake Service. The latter is in charge for the daily interpretation of the data transmitted from Mars, in collaboration with the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich. Now, the journal Nature Geoscience published a series of articles on the results of the mission in the first months of operation on Mars.

As reported in these articles, InSight recorded 174 events until the end of September 2019. Since then, the measurements have continued leading to more than 450 observed marsquakes as of today, which have not yet been analysed in detail. This accounts for one event a day on average. The data allows researchers observing how seismic waves travel through the planet and unveiling its internal characteristics – similar to how x-rays are used in medical tomography. Before InSight landed, researchers had developed a wide range of possible models to represent the internal structure of the red planet: Scientists from the Institute of Geophysics calculated the seismic wave propagation for more than 100 different Mars models on CSCS supercomputer “Piz Daint”. The recorded marsquakes, already after few months, enable refining the understanding of the structure of the planet and to reduce the uncertainties.

Marsquakes are similar to the seismic events we see on Earth, although they are generally of smaller magnitude. The 174 registered marsquakes can be categorized in two families: One includes 24 low-frequency events with magnitudes between 3 and 4, as documented in the papers, with waves propagating through the Martian mantle. A second family of marsquakes comprises 150 events with smaller magnitudes, shallower hypocentral depth and high frequency waves trapped in the Martian crust. “Marsquakes have characteristics already observed on the Moon during the Apollo era, with a long signal duration (10 to 20 minutes) due to the scattering properties of the Martian crust”, explains ETH Professor Giardini. In general, however, he says, interpreting marsquake data is very challenging and in most cases, it is only possible to identify the distance but not the direction from which the waves are arriving.

InSight opens a new era for planetary seismology. The SEIS performance exceeded so far expectations, considering the harsh conditions on Mars, characterized by temperatures ranging from minus 80 to 0 degrees Celsius every day and by strong wind oscillations. Indeed wind shakes the InSight lander and its instrumentation during the day leading to a high level of ambient noise. However, at sunset, the winds calm down allowing recording the quietest seismic data ever collected in the solar system. As a result, most seismic events detected on Mars by SEIS occurred in the quiet night hours. The challenging environment also requires to carefully distinguishing between seismic events and signals originating from movements of the lander, other instruments or atmospheric-induced perturbances.

The hammering by the HP3 instrument (another InSight experiment) and the close passage of whirlwinds (dust devils), recorded by SEIS, allow to map the physical properties of the shallow soil layers just below the station. We now know that SEIS landed on a thin, sandy layer reaching a few meters deep, in the middle of a 20 meter-wide ancient impact crater. At greater depths, the Martian crust has properties comparable to Earth’s crystalline massifs but appears to be more fractured. The propagation of the seismic waves suggest that the upper mantle has a stronger attenuation compared to the lower mantle.

InSight landed in a rather quiet region of Mars, as no events near the station have been recorded up to now. The three biggest events were located in the Cerberus Fossae region about 1’500 km away. It is a tectonic graben system, caused by the weight of the Elysium Mons, the biggest volcano in the Elysium Planitia area. This provides strong evidence that seismic activity on Mars is not only a consequence of the cooling and therewith the shrinking of the planet but also induced by tectonic stress. The total seismic energy released on Mars lies between the one of Earth and of the Moon.

SEIS, complementary to other InSight measurements, also meaningfully contributed data to better understand the meteorological processes on Mars. The instrument’s sensitivity to both wind and atmospheric pressure allowed identifying meteorological phenomena characteristic of Mars, including the many dust devils that pass by the spacecraft every afternoon.

More detailed results of the seismic analysis and additional findings of the InSight mission can be accessed in the series of papers recently published in Nature Geosciences: The seismicity of Mars, Crustal and time-varying magnetic fields at the InSight landing site on Mars, The atmosphere of Mars as observed by InSight, Initial results from the InSight mission on Mars

Learn more about the NASA InSight mission: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/


New ETH project to explore the interior of Mars

New ETH project to explore the interior of Mars

Starting in 2020, the project Planet MARS investigates and characterizes the nature of Mars’ interior structure and dynamics using a broad range of observations as well as theoretical, numerical, and experimental approaches. This ETH-funded project builds upon the successful landing and acquisition of data from the NASA InSight lander on Mars. Planet MARS aims at answering the following goals:

  • determine Mars’s crust, mantle, and core structure using both passive and active InSight data
  • interface with high-pressure mineral physics experiments and thermodynamic modelling methods to further constrain structure and evolution
  • determine magma reservoir stability on Mars using petrological data from Martian meteorites and thermomechanical modelling as a window on differentiation and crust formation processes
  • use constraints from magma ocean crystallisation experiments as a means of understanding evolution and present-day structure
  • determine differentiation and accretion history of Mars from trace and isotope geochemical measurements

Considering the scale and breadth of the scientific challenge, Planet MARS is an integrated, fully comprehensive approach, joining exploration geophysicists, geodynamicists, experimental petrologists, mineral physicists, volcanologists, geochemists, and numerical and observational seismologists in a unique collaborative framework. The research to be carried out represents a cross-disciplinary effort involving nine groups at ETH Zurich.

Seven PhD positions in Planet MARS

For Planet MARS, the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich, appointed seven PhD candidates to work on a broad range of topics on Mars. They will cover the following subprojects:

  1. Single-station seismology on Mars (J. Clinton)
  2. Magma reservoirs on Mars: Controls on differentiation processes and crust formation (O. Bachmann)
  3. Elasticity of a hydrous Martian mantle (M. Murakami)
  4. Fractional crystallization of the Martian magma ocean (M. Schmidt)
  5. The accretion history of Mars (M. Schönbächler)
  6. Seismic resolution of the Martian crust (S. Stähler)
  7. Joint inversion of geophysical data for Martian mantle and core structure (A. Khan, J. Noir)

Learn more about the project here.


Marsquakes Rock and Roll

Marsquakes Rock and Roll

Fifty years after Apollo 11 astronauts deployed the first seismometer on the surface of the Moon, NASA InSight’s seismic experiment transmits data giving researchers the opportunity to compare marsquakes to moon and earthquakes.

Seismologists operating the Marsquake Service at ETH Zurich literally rocked and rolled as they experienced, for the first time, two “marsquakes” in the university’s quake simulator. Researchers uploaded actual data from marsquakes detected on Martian solar day or Sol 128 and 173.The marsquakes were detected by the SEIS seismometer, whose highly sensitive electronics were delivered by the Aerospace Electronics and Instruments laboratory at ETH.

Watch the video taken in the simulator!

Two Types of Marsquakes

SEIS contains arguably the most sensitive seismometer ever operated, capable of detecting even the faintest seismic signals on Mars. Researchers had to amplify the marsquake signals by a factor of 10 million in order to make the quiet and distant tremors perceptible in ETH Zurich’s quake simulator and to compare them with a similarly amplified moon and earthquake.

“We are currently observing two families of quakes on Mars,” says Dr. Simon Stähler. “The first quake was a high frequency event more similar to a moonquake than we expected. The second quake was a much lower frequency, and we think this may be due to the distance. The lower frequency quake likely occurred further away from the seismometer. Compared to the duration of earthquakes, both types of the marsquakes last longer.”

Earth, Moon, and Marsquakes

While seismic waves that travel through the Earth typically persist between 10s of seconds to a few minutes, moonquakes can last up to an hour or more. The extent of the seismic signal is due to distance and to differences in geological structures. If one compares the surfaces of the Earth and the Moon, it might be surprising to learn that the Earth’s crust is more homogeneous than that of the Moon. Billions of years of meteorite impacts fractured the lunar crust and there is no process, on the Moon, that “bakes” the rocks together. On the Earth, volcanism, interior heating, and plate tectonics, as well as erosion and deposition from water and wind meld broken rocks together creating a relatively unbroken and layered crust quickly erasing the traces of meteorite impacts.

“The heterogeneous lunar crust scatters seismic waves, similar to the reverberating echoes one might experience when calling out in rugged mountain terrain,” says Dr. John Clinton, who leads operations at the Marsquake Service at ETH Zurich. The Earth’s crust and mantle, by comparison, are transparent to seismic waves – much like a wide-open space is to sound waves. While seismic sensors on Earth “hear” earthquake signals cleanly, on the Moon seismic sensors detect a plethora of echoes that distort the signal making it very hard to even identify where the signals begin. While seismic research is still in its infancy on Mars, marsquakes appear to be somewhere in between moon and earthquakes. Researchers recognize the first seismic signals of the marsquake, but the signals that follow include more echoes than scientists expected. The duration of a marsquake signal can be approximately 10 to 20 minutes. Scientists do not yet know whether the fractured part of the Martian crust is just few kilometers deep, as it is on the moon, or if it is shallower.

Marsquake Service Ops

Domenico Giardini, Professor of Geophysics and Seismology, leads the Swiss participation in the InSight mission. He established the Marsquake Service (MQS) center at ETH Zurich. Roughly, twice each day, an international team of ten seismologists analyses seismic data from Mars with the aim of detecting and characterizing marsquakes.

Since there is only one seismometer on Mars, Giardini and his team combine methods taken from the early days of seismology, when there were only a few seismometers on Earth, with modern analytic methods for locating seismic events. Ultimately, researchers look to the seismic data to answer questions, not only about the interior geological structure of Mars, but also how early planets in the inner solar system formed more than four billion years ago.

The Marsquake Service is a collaborative ground service operation led by ETH Zurich and includes seismologists from the Institute of Geophysics and the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich, IPG Paris, ISAE Toulouse, University of Bristol, Imperial College London, MPS Gottingen, and JPL Pasadena.

InSight lander

Explore the interactive graphic and learn more about the InSight lander and its instruments.