The NASA Insight lander's prolonged mission shed new light on Mars' liquid core

Scientists detected seismic "energy traveling through the heart of another planet" for the very first time.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Insight lander.
An artist's impression of the Insight lander.

IPGP / Nicolas Sarter 

A team of scientists used data from NASA's InSight Mars lander to shed new light on the liquid core at the center of the Red Planet.

The international research team, led by the University of Bristol, detailed the first-ever detections of seismic waves traveling into Mars' core.

By analyzing the InSight lander data, they were able to determine that the Martian core is slightly denser and smaller than previously believed.

NASA's Insight lander exceeded expectations

The NASA InSight Mars lander mission was initially intended to last approximately one Mars year, roughly equivalent to two Earth years. However, it exceeded NASA's expectations and lasted roughly four years, allowing scientists to tap into a wealth of extra data.

"The extra mission time certainly paid off," the lead author of the new paper, Dr. Jessica Irving, a senior lecturer in Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, explained in a press statement.

Thanks to that extra mission time, Dr. Irving explained, "We made the very first observations of seismic waves traveling through the core of Mars. Two seismic signals, one from a very distant marsquake and one from a meteorite impact on the far side of the planet, have allowed us to probe the Martian core with seismic waves. We've effectively been listening for energy traveling through the heart of another planet, and now we've heard it."

Aside from finding that Mars' liquid core is a little smaller than previously believed, the scientists also found that Mars' core contains large amounts of sulfur and small amounts of hydrogen on top of the iron they expected to detect in large quantities.

Peering into the heart of Mars

The team behind the new analysis comprised a multi-disciplinary team, including seismologists, geodynamicists, and mineral physicists. They used observations of two seismic events located on the opposite side of Mars to the lander to allow them to measure the travel times of seismic waves passing through the planet's core. Then, they compared that data with measurements of seismic waves that remained in the mantle.

“So-called 'farside' events, meaning those on the opposite side of the planet to InSight, are intrinsically harder to detect because a great deal of energy is lost or diverted away as waves travel through the planet," Dr. Irving explained. "We needed both luck and skill to find, and then use, these events. We detected no farside events in the first Martian year of operations. If the mission had ended then, this research couldn't have happened."

The researchers used their measurements to build models describing the physical properties of Mars' core, including its size and elastic wave speed. They estimated that the core has a radius of approximately 1,780–1,810 kilometers (1,106-1,124 miles). This is consistent with the core having a high fraction of light elements alloyed with iron, such as sulfur as well as smaller amounts of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen.