The drilling component on NASA’s Mars Insight lander may have hit a snag or two, but this probe has its fingers in a few pies on the surface of the Red Planet. The spacecraft’s primary sensor has now pulled in the first ever direct measurements of seismic activity on Mars, which mission scientists can use as window to better understand the planet’s insides and its potential to harbor life.
The Insight lander touched down on Mars in November of 2018, and less than a month later laid out its main sensor on the surface. This SEIS instrument (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is separate to the self-hammering heat probe that has intermittently become stuck in the surface, though the two are designed to work in tandem to gather new insights on the geological activity of Mars.
Where the heat probe, known as “the mole,” is designed to drill into the surface and measure the thermal conductivity and temperature in the soil, the SEIS will gather data from above the surface.
It was the first seismometer to be deployed on Mars in more than 40 years, since the two aboard Viking landers arrived in the 70s, though these were somewhat limited in comparison.
This is because the Viking probes were housed inside the landers where vibrations and winds compromised their performance, with the instruments not returning any convincing data of seismic activity on Mars. The SEIS, in contrast, was carefully placed directly on the planet’s surface by the lander’s robotic arm, with the same arm then placing a protective shield over it a few months later to guard it from the Martian winds and temperature fluctuations that can make for messy signals.