Mars is covered in dust devils and has strange magnetic pulses, InSight reveals

NASA’s InSight lander has been on the surface of Mars since 2018, collecting data on the interior of the planet. Despite problems with its heat probe getting stuck in the Martian soil, the lander has still been able to collect a wealth of information on what is going on at and beneath the planet’s surface. This week, a set of six papers was published which reveal more about how the plant is shaken by marsquakes, has a surface is rife with dust devils, and gives off strange magnetic pulses from ancient rocks.

Mars Mission In this artist's concept of NASA's InSight lander on Mars, layers of the planet's subsurface can be seen below and dust devils can be seen in the background.
In this artist’s concept of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars, layers of the planet’s subsurface can be seen below and dust devils can be seen in the background. IPGP/Nicolas Sarter

Researchers already knew that Mars was shaken by marsquakes, but recent data suggests this happens more frequently but more mildly than previously thought. InSight has detected more than 450 seismic events, the largest of which was a magnitude 4.0. The source of these quakes is different from earthquakes, however, as Mars does not have tectonic plates as Earth does. Instead, the quakes are being caused by volcanic activity and lava flowing beneath the surface which destabilizes the ground.

Another strange phenomenon beneath Mars’s surface relates to findings from InSight’s magnetometer. Mars used to have its own magnetic field, billions of years ago, but it no longer does. However, this field has left behind a mark, with some rocks beneath the surface having been magnetized. Using its magnetometer, InSight found magnetic pulse signals which were 10 times stronger than expected, and which seem to change over time.

“This magnetism must be coming from ancient rocks underground,” Catherine Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and the Planetary Science Institute, said in a statement. “We’re combining these data with what we know from seismology and geology to understand the magnetized layers below InSight. How strong or deep would they have to be for us to detect this field?”

Finally, InSight has also been measuring the wind on Mars and the radio signals which indicate the planet’s “wobble.” The winds indicate the presence of frequent whirlwinds called dust devils, which occur far more frequently than previously thought. And with further analysis, the radio signals could reveal whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid.

These findings represent the first full year of data from InSight, and the researchers are expecting more to come in the future.

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