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NASA Mars lander discovers deep quakes rock the Red Planet

A load of new research from the InSight mission shows a dynamic world, inside and out.

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This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.
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InSight's seismometer on the surface of Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars may appear dead, dry and chilly, but it's plenty active deep underground. 

That's the image shaped by a new suite of papers published Monday in Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications, based on data from the NASA InSight lander's first 10 months probing the Red Planet.

InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018, and while the mission has had trouble getting its heat probe "mole" beneath the Martian surface, it has been quite successful at picking up "marsquakes" -- the equivalent of an earthquake on our planetary neighbor.

"We've finally, for the first time, established that Mars is a seismically active planet," Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator for InSight, told reporters on a conference call. "The seismic activity is greater than that of the moon ... but less than the Earth."

Banerdt says that recording marsquakes is important because it also allows scientists to study and understand the interior of Mars better. 

InSight's seismometer detected 174 marsquakes through September 2019, including 20 measured at a magnitude 3 to 4. 

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So far, the marsquakes picked up by InSight seem to be much deeper than most tremors felt on Earth, coming at a depth of around 50 kilometers (31 miles). That's around five to 10 times the depth of many earthquakes. The researchers say that a person standing on the surface of Mars might be able to feel the strongest temblors that InSight has picked up, but the quakes probably wouldn't pose much of a danger to something like a Martian research base or Elon Musk's fanciful metropolis.

Beyond marsquakes, other papers released Monday from InSight data show evidence of perhaps thousands of swirling wind vortices, or "dust devils," on the Martian surface, similarities between atmospheric turbulence on Mars and Earth, and a deposit of ancient magnetized rocks beneath InSight's landing site. 

"What is so spectacular about this data is that it gives us this beautifully poetic picture of what a day is actually like on another planet," said Vedran Lekic, a University of Maryland geologist on the InSight team, in a release.

Nicholas Schmerr, also a University of Maryland professor on the team, says this picture can help answer the big questions about Mars and whether it can support life, or has supported it in the past.

"If it turns out there is liquid magma on Mars, and if we can pinpoint where the planet is most geologically active, it might guide future missions searching for the potential for life."

Originally published Feb. 24, 8:15 a.m. PT.