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InSight is the first mission dedicated to studying the internal structure of the planet Mars. Among other scientific tools, it includes the SEIS seismometer to detect "Martian earthquakes," wind and atmospheric pressure sensors, a magnetometer, and a probe to measure the internal heat flux to take the temperature of the planet.

SEIS is the InSight mission’s main instrument which CNES and IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris/CNRS/Université de Paris/Université de la Réunion/IGN) are in charge of. Many French and international research institutes have worked with them. ISAE-SUPAERO has been involved in this project scientifically for several years, taking part in developing a model of the instrument and the scientific software as well as analyzing mission data.

The InSight lander on the ground of Mars - © NASA/JPL Caltech/, 2018

A new understanding of Mars is beginning to emerge from the first year of NASA’s InSight lander mission. Findings described in a set of six papers published today reveal a planet alive with quakes, dust devils and strange magnetic pulses.

The scientific results that researchers from ISAE-SUPAERO have contributed to are presented in a set of six articles published by the magazines Nature Geoscience and Nature Communication. Five of the papers were published in Nature Geoscience. An additional paper in Nature Communication details the InSight spacecraft’s landing site, a shallow crater in a region called Elysium Planitia (nicknamed "Homestead Hollow").

While the team continues to work on getting the probe into the Martian surface as intended, the ultra-sensitive seismometer has enabled scientists to "hear" multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

Seismic waves are affected by the materials they move through, giving scientists a way to study the composition of the planet’s inner structure. Mars can help the team better understand how all rocky planets, including Earth and its Moon, first formed.

Below are some of the key findings from this set of papers.


Mars trembles more often, but also more mildly, than predicted by models. SEIS has recorded more than 400 seismic signals to date, the vast majority of which are probably microquakes (as opposed to data noise created by the environment, like wind). The largest quake was about magnitude 4.0 in size, not quite large enough to travel down to the lower mantle and core. Those are "the juiciest parts of the apple" when it comes to studying the planet’s inner structure, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Scientists are ready for more: it took months after InSight’s landing in November 2018 before they recorded the first seismic event. By the end of 2019, SEIS was detecting about two seismic signals a day, suggesting that InSight just happened to touch down at a particularly quiet time. Scientists still have their fingers crossed for "the big one".

The InSight lander on the ground of Mars - © NASA/JPL Caltech/, 2018

Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates like Earth, but it does have volcanically active regions that can cause rumbles. A pair of quakes was strongly linked to one such region, Cerberus Fossae, where scientists had already noticed in high-resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter boulders that may have been shaken down cliffsides. Ancient floods therecarved channels nearly 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) long. Lava flows then seeped into those channels within the past 10 million years—the blink of an eye in geologic time.

Some of these relatively young lava flows show signs of having been fractured by quakes less than two million years ago. "It’s just about the youngest tectonic feature on the planet," said planetary geologist Matt Golombek of JPL/NASA. "The fact that we’re seeing evidence of shaking in this region isn’t a surprise, but it’s very cool."

You can listen to the rumblings of these two quakes, recorded by SEIS and known as events 173a (22 May 2019) and 235b (25 July 2019).

At the surface

Billions of years ago, Mars had a magnetic field that is no longer present. But it left ghosts behind: this field magnetized ancient rocks that are now between 200 feet (61 metres) to several miles below ground. InSight is equipped with a magnetometer—the first on Mars—to detect such magnetism at the surface.

The lander’s magnetometer has found that the magnetism at Homestead Hollow is ten times stronger than expected, based on data from orbiting spacecraft that were averaged over a couple of hundred miles; InSight’s measurements home in on an area far more local.
Because most rocks at InSight’s location are too young to have been magnetized by the planet’s former field, "this magnetism must be coming from ancient rocks underground," said Catherine Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and the Planetary Science Institute. "We’re combining these data with what we know from seismology and geology to understand the magnetized layers below InSight. How strong or deep would they have to be for us to detect this field?"

InSight has also detected mysterious magnetic pulses, typically around midnight. These pulses likely originate in space above Mars, as opposed to rocks below ground—something that scientists weren’t sure they would be able to detect all the way at the surface.

In the wind

InSight’s weather sensorshave detected hundreds of passing whirlwinds, which are called dust devils when they pick up grit and become visible. "This site has more whirlwinds than any other place we’ve landed on Mars while carrying weather sensors," said Aymeric Spiga, an atmospheric scientist at Sorbonne University in Paris. InSight measures wind speed, direction and air pressure nearly continuously, thus yielding more data than previous landed missions.

Despite all that activity and frequent imaging, InSight’s cameras have yet to see dust devils, even though traces left by them have been seen on certain days. But SEIS can feel these whirlwinds pulling on the surface like a giant vacuum cleaner. “Whirlwinds are perfect for subsurface seismic exploration,” said Philippe Lognonné of the IPGP1 global physics institute, principal investigator of SEIS and professor at the University of Paris.

The core

InSight has two radios: one for regularly sending and receiving data, and a more powerful radio designed to measure the "wobble" of Mars as it spins. This X-band radio, also known as the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), could eventually reveal whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid. A solid core would cause Mars to wobble less than a liquid one. This first year of data is just a start. Watching over a full Martian year (two Earth years) will give scientists a much better idea of the size and speed of the planet’s wobble.

The InSight lander on the ground of Mars - © NASA/JPL Caltech/, 2018

About InSight and SEIS

JPL/NASA manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.
CNES is lead contractor for SEIS and IPGP (CNRS/University of Paris/University of Réunion/IGN) is the instrument principal investigator.

CNES is funding French contributions to the mission, coordinating the international mission consortium2 and was responsible for integrating, testing and supplying the complete instrument to NASA. IPGP designed the very-broad band (VBB) sensors and tested them before delivery to CNES. Several research laboratories attached to the French national scientific research centre CNRS—the LMD dynamic meteorology research laboratory (CNRS/ENS Paris/Ecole polytechnique/Sorbonne University), the LPGN planetology and geodynamics laboratory (CNRS/University of Nantes/University of Angers), the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute (CNRS/University of Toulouse/CNES), the LGL-TPE Earth, planets and environment geology laboratory (CNRS/ENS Lyon/Claude Bernard University Lyon 1), the IMPMC mineralogy, materials physics and cosmochemistry institute (Sorbonne University/National Natural History Museum/CNRS) and the J.L. Lagrange laboratory (CNRS/Côte d’Azur University, Cote d’Azur Observatory)—are working with IPGP and the ISAE-SUPAERO aeronautics and space institute to analyse the mission’s science data, with support from CNES and ANR, the national research agency (for the MAGIS project).

1 Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris
2 In collaboration with Sodern for the VBB sensors, JPL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS, Göttingen, Germany), and Imperial College London and Oxford University, which supplied subsystems for SEIS and are involved in exploiting the mission’s science data.

Learn more about the InSight-SEIS papers.

ISAE-SUPAERO, a world-class space laboratory

A major contribution to the SEIS seismometer

Along with our contribution to the development of the instrument model and the scientific software, ISAE-SUPAERO’s mission also included the production and use of the instrument’s performance boards used by the NASA mission’s team during the Mars landing. Indeed, it was the first time an instrument was deployed by a robotic arm on another planet. Thanks to the boards supplied by ISAE-SUPAERO, which take into account the characteristics of the Martian environment as well as the Insight lander’s configuration, the instrument’s performances have been improved and are very close to the predictions.

A first step toward the instruments of the future: PIONEERS

Capitalizing on the experience gained with the SEIS seismometer, ISAE-SUPAERO is currently pursuing the development of the next generation of planetary seismometers with the PIONEERS project (Planetary Instruments based on Optical technologies for an iNnovative European Exploration using Rotational Seismology).

This project was selected as part of the Horizon 2020 program, the largest European research and innovation program with nearly 80 billion euros in financing over 7 years (including €3 million in funding for the PIONEERS project).

ISAE-SUPAERO’s academic team working on PIONEERS is made up of key members of the European consortium that supplied SEIS for the InSight mission, including the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, inventor of the SEIS instrument. The researchers intend to take advantage of the technological developments from the Mars mission to go even farther with this project. It will develop the next generation of sensors, targeting a technological breakthrough based on optical interferometry technologies.

In concrete terms, ISAE-SUPAERO intervenes in designing instrument architecture, as well as in the constraints connected to operations on other planets and small bodies in the solar system.
“This technology will be 100 time more accurate than the SEIS seismometer. Based on this first instrument, which was able to measure travel in three dimensions, Pioneers will be a “6 axis” instrument capable of measuring rotations as well,” explained David Mimoun, research professor in charge of the Space Systems for Planetology team at ISAE-SUPAERO and co-investigator for the SEIS project.

ISAE-SUPAERO on board NASA’s Mars 2020 rover

Next July, NASA’s next Martian rover, Mars 2020, will take off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Martian microphone that we contributed to in terms of development.
The InSight lander on the surface of Mars.

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