The largest-ever recorded quake on the planet Mars was not caused by a meteorite impact, but “enormous tectonic forces”.
This is the conclusion of an international team of scientists who analyzed data from NASA’s InSight Mars Lander, which has a built-in seismometer.
The record-setting quake which had a magnitude of 4.7 and caused the planet to reverberate for six hours struck on May 4, 2020.
Because it had a signal similar to those of marsquakes known to have been set off by meteoroid impacts, experts first believed that the event, dubbed “S1222a”, may have been caused by an impact as well, and began a search for a fresh crater.
However, after several months of scanning the Red Planet’s surface, no crater was found — forcing the researchers to conclude that the tremor had a different origin.
The search for the impact crater was impressive in scope. Although smaller than Earth, Mars has a similar land surface area, with some 55.6 million square miles to survey.
As a result, study lead Dr Benjamin Fernando — a planetary geophysicist at the University of Oxford — sought contributions to the hunt from the Chinese National Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency.
In fact, it is believed that this study represents the first time that all of the active missions in Mars orbit have collaborated on a single project.
Each group analyzed data from their satellites to either look directly for a new crater on Mars’ surface, or to look for signs of an impact — such as the ejection of a dust cloud.
Neither were found.
The conclusion that the quake must instead be tectonic in origin indicates that Mars must be more seismically active than was previously thought.
Fernando explained: “We still think that Mars’ doesn’t have any active plate tectonics today, so this event was likely caused by the release of stress of Mars’ crust.
“These stresses are the result of billions of years of evolution — including the cooling and shrinking of different parts of the planet at different rates.
“We still do not fully understand why some parts of the planet seem to have higher stresses than others, but results like these help us to investigate further.
“One day, this information may help us to understand where it would be safe for humans to live on Mars, and where you might want to avoid!”
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Dr Daniela Tirsch is the Science Coordinator for the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, which was involved in the search for a crater associated with S1222a.
She said: “This experiment shows how important it is to maintain a diverse set of instruments at Mars.
“We are very glad to have played our part in completing the multi-instrumental and international approach of this study.”
Astronomer Dr Jianjun Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences added: “We are willing to collaborate with scientists around the world to share and apply […] scientific data to get more knowledge about Mars.
“[We] are proud to have provided data from the color imagers on Tianwen-1 to contribute to this effort.”
(Tianwen-1 is an unmanned Mars mission which, alongside making scientific observations from orbit, also delivered the Zhurong rover to the surface of the Red Planet.)
During its operation of Mars’ surface — between November 2018 and December 2022 — InSight logged more than 1,300 seismic events.
Eight of these have been conclusively linked to meteoroid impacts, the largest two of which each formed crates just under 500 feet in diameter.
By extension, had S1222a been formed by an impact, the researchers said that they would have expected to have seen an impact crater some 1,000 feet in diameter.
S1222a was one of the last events recorded by InSight before the mission lost contact with Earth following power issues caused by dust build-up on the lander’s solar panels.
However, the findings of studies like the one into S1222a will help inform future missions to the Earth’s Moon and Saturn’s moon, Titan.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
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