Wavering NASA lander detects biggest Mars quake yet, even as dust drains its energy

InSight mars lander
An artist illustration of the InSight lander on Mars, with its dome-shaped seismometer on the ground beside it.NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has detected the largest Mars quake yet, a tremor nearly 16 times stronger than the previous record-holder. It shook the space agency's InSight lander on May 4.

That would be a medium-sized earthquake, but it's a big one for Mars and the largest ever detected on another planet.

insight seismometer white dome on mars surface dirt
InSight's seismometer sits on the Martian surface, as photographed by the lander.NASA/JPL-Caltech

"This quake is sure to provide a view into the planet like no other. Scientists will be analyzing this data to learn new things about Mars for years to come," Bruce Banerdt, who leads the InSight team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement on Monday.

InSight landed on Mars with a seismometer in tow in 2018. Since deploying the quake-measuring instrument, it's detected more than 1,300 temblors. Most of them were small rumbles. For three years, scientists were waiting to catch a big one.

Until now, the most powerful Mars quake they detected was a 4.2 magnitude, in September. The May 4 quake has an estimated magnitude of 5, which would make it six times bigger than the September quake, releasing 15.8 times more energy. (The Richter scale of magnitude is exponential, so small increases in quake magnitude correspond to big jumps in size and strength.)

spectrogram graph shows big bright yellow spike corresponding to major mars quake
This spectrogram shows the 5-magnitude Mars quake, detected by NASA's InSight lander, on May 4, 2022.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ETH Zurich

It's too early to say where the new quake came from, what caused it, or how it resonated through the Martian interior. Still, the last three years of seismic data have shown researchers that Mars' crust is thinner than they thought, and more like the moon's crust — broken up from asteroid impacts — than Earth's. The quakes have also revealed that Mars has a molten core.

InSight's big-quake victory is clouded by a power crisis. The lander's home in an open plain turned out to be less windy than scientists expected, which allowed a thick accumulation of dust to build up on its solar panels.

NASA approved funding for InSight's mission through December 2022, but the agency said in a statement on Tuesday that the lander is "unlikely" to continue operations through that time period unless a surprise wind clears the dust away.

Dust is draining InSight's power supply and menacing NASA's Mars helicopter

insight robot on mars covered in brown dust
InSight snapped a photo of one of its dust-covered solar arrays, on June 26, 2021.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The InSight team has spent more than a year struggling to increase the robot's solar-energy production in order to fuel its scientific instruments. Now, with Martian winter approaching and more dust gathering in the air, InSight is absorbing even less sunlight. Its power supply fell below a level that triggers its safety mode on Saturday, suspending non-essential functions, including science activities, for the second time this year.

The lander lost so much power last Mars winter that NASA engineers put it into hibernation, shutting down its science instruments for the season. At the time, Banerdt told NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group that the lander's mission was likely to end soon after the onset of the next winter, in April 2022.

NASA said Tuesday that it will share an update on InSight's future and its power situation on May 17.

Dust is a persistent threat to all Mars robots. Last week, in a crater to the west, the red-brown powder plunged the iconic Ingenuity helicopter into a communications blackout for the first time. NASA re-established a connection with the drone later that day, once the sun had risen and recharged Ingenuity's batteries. But the incident has put the helicopter in a power-preserving mode similar to InSight's, shutting down non-vital functions in order to build up a battery charge.

ingenuity helicopter on mars surface in brown dirt
This image of the Ingenuity helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover, on June 15, 2021.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

If InSight doesn't survive the year, it would join the ranks of another high-tech Mars robot that cost NASA hundreds of millions of dollars and succumbed to dust. The agency's Opportunity rover never powered back up again after a dust storm drained its energy in 2018.

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