Our neighboring planet has it all. Beneath the surface, Mars contains large amounts of liquid magma and water ice, as evidenced by seismic measurements by NASA and ETH Zurich. This ice may one day make it easier for early humans to survive on Mars.
Earth’s red brother has a lot to offer in terms of landscape: oddly shaped craters, primeval riverbeds and breathtaking mountains like Olympus Mons, which is three times as high as Mount Everest, the highest volcano in our solar system.
But the volcano died out, the waters evaporated and the landscape frozen into a dead desert planet. This is how we know Mars. But this picture is wrong, says Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of NASA’s InSight mission: “Mars is not a fossil from the past, but a living, active planet!”
An unexpected number of Mars quakes
This is revealed by Martian earthquakes, which a NASA seismometer, which Switzerland helped develop, has been measuring on our neighboring planet for four years. Domenico Giardini and his team at ETH Zurich record and evaluate seismic signals on the ground. The team measured more than 1,300 earthquakes. Although they — at a maximum of 4.7 magnitude — are weaker than those on Earth, they are “surprisingly numerous,” according to Giardini.
Volcanoes in the Hellhound Trenches
Many of the measured Martian earthquakes occur where there are large fault structures in the Earth’s interior — some with glowing magma inside, the researchers were able to infer from their seismic measurements. “It’s very exciting to see that Mars is still experiencing active volcanism even today,” says Bruce Banerdt.
There is no bubbling or hissing anywhere on Mars: but in the future, according to Domenico Giardini, it will be possible, whether in three or 300 years. A hot contender isn’t Olympus Mons, but Mars is particularly active in an uncharted territory with steep trenches and is appropriately named: Cerberus Fusai, in German: The Trenches of Hell.
But not only movements from the depths show Mars in a new light. About a year ago, the seismometer also detected a larger meteorite impact, which revealed large amounts of water ice from 20 meters deep. This is the first time in the equator region, which is relatively warm due to Martian conditions, that is, where people are supposed to land on Mars in the future. A second, very similar tropical forcing was discovered later during seismic data analysis.
Dust puts an end to the mission
In November 2018, the American NASA Insight probe landed on the Martian plain Elysium Planitia with the aim of measuring subsurface heat fluxes and seismic activity. While the “Mole” – a long, thin drill – had to give up prematurely due to unfavorable ground conditions, the seismometer lasted twice as long as planned. In addition to seismic waves from the depths, it has also recorded some surface waves coming from the side, such as those from meteor impacts. From the data we can conclude, among other things, that Mars has a similar internal structure to Earth – with a liquid core, mantle and crust, with Mars’ crust being thicker than Earth’s in relation to the planet’s size. The last seismic measurements are due in a few weeks, as thick dust covers the lander’s solar panels and the Insight station runs out of power.
Blocks of ice several meters high
Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is very satisfied: “These are not just traces of water ice, but masses of ice several meters in size, which make up maybe five or ten percent of the upper soil layers. For people on Mars, that would be A welcome survival aid.”
Mars is not a fossil from the past, but a living and active planet!
A geophysicist estimates that the ice is close enough to the surface that it can be drilled or excavated.
What looks promising also reveals risks. More meteorites fly off Mars than on Earth. And bigger effects – let the stones easily fly 20 kilometers across the landscape. Mars remains a rocky place for humans.
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