As NASA retires its InSight Mars lander, here's a look at some of the biggest discoveries from the first mission designed to study the Red Planet's interior – plus, how to make connections to what students are learning now.
After more than four years listening to the “heartbeat” of Mars, NASA is saying goodbye to the InSight lander as the mission on the Red Planet comes to an end. On Dec. 21, 2022 scientists wrapped up the first-of-its-kind mission to study the interior of Mars as dust in the Martian atmosphere and on the spacecraft’s solar panels prevented the lander from generating enough power to continue.
Read on to learn how the mission worked, what it discovered, and how to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.
How It Worked
The InSight lander was designed to reveal the processes that led to the formation of Mars – as well as Earth, the Moon, and all rocky worlds. This meant meeting two main science goals.
First, scientists wanted to understand how Mars formed and evolved. To do that, they needed to investigate the size and make-up of Mars’ core, the thickness and structure of its crust, the structure of the mantle layer, the warmth of the planet's interior, and the amount of heat flowing through the planet.
Second, to study tectonic activity on Mars, scientists needed to determine the power, frequency, and location of “marsquakes” as well as measure how often meteoroids impacted the Red Planet, creating seismic waves.
Engineers equipped InSight with three main science tools that would allow researchers to answer these questions about Mars.
SEIS, a seismometer like the ones used on Earth to record earthquakes, measured the seismic waves on Mars. These waves, which travel through the Red Planet, can tell scientists a lot about the areas they pass through. They even carry clues about whether it was a marsquake or meteorite impact that created the waves.
InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, was an instrument designed to burrow 16 feet (five meters) into Mars to measure the temperature at different depths and monitor how heat flowed out toward the surface. However, the self-hammering probe, informally called the "mole," struggled to dig itself in due to the unexpected consistency of the top few inches of Mars regolith at the landing site. Using full-size models of the lander and probe, engineers recreated InSight’s environment here on Earth to see if they could find a solution to the issue. They tested solutions that would allow the probe to penetrate the surface, including pressing the scoop attached to InSight’s robotic arm against the probe. While the effort serves as a great real-world example of how engineers work through problems with distant spacecraft, ultimately, none of the solutions allowed the probe to dig past the surface when attempted on Mars.
InSight’s third experiment, called RISE, used the spacecraft’s radio antennas to precisely measure the lander's position on the surface of Mars. The interior structure of Mars affects the planet’s motion, causing it to wobble. Measuring InSight’s position as the planet wobbled helped scientists gain a better understanding of the core and other layered structures that exist within the interior of Mars.
What We Discovered
InSight’s instruments enabled the mission science team to gain an understanding of not only the depth of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, but also the composition of those features. They also learned just how active Mars really is.
The Structure of Mars
Working our way from the surface to the center of the planet, scientists found Mars’ crust was thinner than expected. Seismic waves detected by SEIS indicate that the crust is made up of three sub-layers, similar to Earth’s crust. The top-most layer of the crust is about six miles (10 kilometers) deep, while the denser layers of the crust, which contain more felsic, or iron-rich, material extend downward to about 25 miles (40 kilometers) below the surface. As seismic waves from a marsquake or a meteorite impact spread across the surface and through the interior of the planet, they can reflect off of underground layers, giving scientists views into the unseen materials below. Measuring how the waves change as a result of these reflections is how scientists unveiled the underground structure of Mars.
Like Earth, Mars has a lithosphere, a rigid layer made up of the crust and upper mantle. The Martian lithosphere extends about 310 miles (500 kilometers) below the surface before it transitions into the remaining mantle layer, which is relatively cool compared with Earth’s mantle. Mars’ mantle extends to 969 miles (1,560 kilometers) below the surface where it meets the planet’s core.
Scientists measured the core of Mars and found it to be larger than expected, with a radius of 1,137 miles (1,830 kilometers). With this information, scientists were able to estimate the density of Mars' core, which turned out to be less dense than anticipated, meaning it contains lighter elements mixed in with iron. Scientists also confirmed that the planet contains a liquid core. While we know that Earth has a liquid outer core and solid inner core, scientists will need to further study the data returned from InSight to know if there is also a solid inner core on Mars.
As scientists continue to study the data returned from InSight, we could learn even more about how Mars formed, how its magnetic field developed, and what materials make up the core, which could ultimately help us better understand how Earth and other planets formed.
InSight discovered that Mars is a very active planet. A total of 1,319 marsquakes were detected after the SEIS instrument was placed on the surface. The largest, which was estimated to be a magnitude 5, was detected in May of 2022.
Unlike Earth, where the crust is broken into large pieces called plates that continually shift around causing earthquakes, Mars’ crust is made up of one solid plate, somewhat like a shell. However, as the planet cools, the crust shrinks, creating breaks called faults. This breaking action is what causes marsquakes, and the seismic waves generated by the quakes are what help scientists figure out when and where the quakes occurred and how powerful they were.
Nearly all of the strongest marsquakes detected by InSight came from a region known as Cerberus Fossae, a volcanic region that may have had lava flows within the past few million years. Volcanic activity, even without lava flowing on the surface, can be another way marsquakes occur. Images from orbiting spacecraft show boulders that have fallen from cliffs in this region, perhaps shaken loose by large marsquakes.
Conversely, InSight didn't detect any quakes in the volcanic region known as Tharsis, the home of three of Mars’ largest volcanos that sit approximately one-third of the way around the planet from InSight. This doesn’t necessarily mean the area is not seismically active. Scientists think there may be quakes occurring, but the size of Mars’ liquid core creates what’s known as a shadow zone – an area into which seismic waves don’t pass – at InSight's location.
On Sept. 5, 2021, InSight detected the impacts of a meteoroid that entered the Martian atmosphere. The meteoroid exploded into at least three pieces that reached the surface and left behind craters. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the impact sites to capture images of the three new craters and confirm their locations.
“After three years of waiting for an impact, those craters looked beautiful,” said Ingrid Daubar of Brown University, a Mars impacts specialist.
Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s, means meteoroids have a better chance of not disintegrating in the heat and pressure that builds up as they pass through the atmosphere to the planet’s surface. Despite this fact and Mars' proximity to the asteroid belt, the planet proved to be a challenging location to detect meteorite impacts because of "noise" in the data created by winds blowing on SEIS and seasonal changes in the atmosphere.
With the confirmation of the September 2021 impacts, scientists were able to identify a telltale seismic signature to these meteorite impacts. With this information in hand, they looked back through InSight's data and found three more impacts – one in 2020 and two in 2021. Scientists anticipate finding even more impacts in the existing data that might have been hidden by the noise in the data.
Meteorite impacts are an invaluable piece of understanding the planet’s surface. On a planet like Earth, wind, rain, snow and ice wear down surface features in a process known as weathering. Plate tectonics and active volcanism refresh Earth’s surface regularly. Mars’ surface is older and doesn't go through those same processes, so a record of past geologic events like meteorite impacts is more apparent on the planet's surface. By counting impact craters visible on Mars today, scientists can update their models and better estimate the number of impacts that occurred in the early solar system. This gives them an improved approximation of the age of the planet’s surface.
Why It's Important
Before InSight touched down, all Mars missions – landers, rovers, orbiters and flyby spacecraft – studied the surface and atmosphere of the planet. InSight was the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars.
Even with the InSight mission drawing to a close, the science and engineering of the mission will continue to inform our understanding of the Red Planet and our solar system for years as researchers further examine the data returned to Earth. Keep up to date with the latest findings from InSight scientists and engineers on the mission website.
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- Website: Mars InSight Mission
- Podcast: On a Mission - Season 1
- Articles: JPL News - InSight Mission
- Videos: InSight Mission Videos
- Images: InSight Mission Images
- Video: Interns Explore the Future at NASA-JPL
- Videos: Inside InSight - YouTube Playlist
- Videos: InSight Mission to Mars - YouTube Playlist
- Interactive: Experience InSight
- Website: NASA Mars Exploration
- Articles: People - Meet the Martians
- Resources for Kids: Space Place - All About Mars