Science & Technology

Listen to the First Sounds Ever Recorded on Mars

We just heard a rumble on Mars that didn't come from some Red Planet monster, but from vibrations in the constant Martian wind. The InSight lander recently listened to Mars sounds through — of all instruments — a seismometer and an air pressure sensor. With the first sounds ever recorded on Mars, this gives us another data point to better understand our planetary neighbor.

Listen to the Martian Wind

Literal Mic Drop

We've been sending Mars probes to the planet since the 1960s, so what took us so long to measure the wind? A lot of it is just plain bad luck. Landing on Mars is really tough because it's a different atmosphere and a different planet and the probes need to touch down on their own — the planet is too far away for NASA or another agency to dead stick a landing. Radio waves take 20 minutes on average to reach Mars. We're getting better at Mars landings, but in the past, many probes have crashed or disappeared.

In 1999, the Planetary Society did provide a microphone as part of the NASA Mars Polar Lander mission, but the probe crashed into the surface due to a mistake converting between metric and imperial units. Another microphone did make it to the surface on NASA's Mars Phoenix polar lander in 2007, but technical difficulties prevented controllers from turning it on.

A recent article in Astronomy talks about how hard it is to even justify a microphone on a Mars mission, explaining that it needs to compete with cameras, spectrometers, and other instruments on a spacecraft that can only carry so much mass.

"Though their most compelling feature is public interest, microphones would produce some science, such as wind sounds and possibly sounds like lightning or blowing sand. A microphone would also be good for engineering: hearing wheels turning and motors working. And microphones require little in the way of mass, power, or data," Bruce Betts, then-director of science and technology for the Planetary Society, explained.

InSight Is Listening

Luckily, InSight finally caught a break. The stationary lander touched down on the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018, defying the odds and starting a mission that will probe the Martian seismic history. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, underground lava flows, planetary wobbles ... InSight is going to be an incredible mission that shows us a lot about planetary history in general. The neatest thing is, it will do the whole thing while sitting still.

Sounds came from two instruments that aren't technically microphones. A United Kingdom-built seismometer detected sound vibrations from wind while it blew over the solar panels. Meanwhile, an air pressure sensor picked up vibrations from the surrounding atmosphere.

Funny enough, the seismometer's windy success will be short-lived because it has to move on to its main mission. Right now it's sitting high up on the spacecraft, which makes it able to detect the wind. But soon, it will move down to the surface to look for signs of marsquakes.

"This is brilliant news because it means we know the sensors have survived the rigours of landing on Mars and are meeting the requirements to achieve their science goals. It is just amazing to hear the first ever sounds from Mars," said Sue Horne, the head of exploration at the United Kingdom Space Agency, in a press release.

The success is all the sweeter because it was a problem with a seismometer that delayed InSight's expected 2016 launch, forcing the mission to wait a couple of years until Mars cycled back in the right position in the solar system for launch. NASA, which briefly said it may need to cancel the mission, found some extra funds to compensate for the delay and sent the lander on its way earlier this year. Now, at least two Earth years of interesting science awaits. What other wonders will InSight show us?

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Written by Elizabeth Howell December 12, 2018

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