NASA InSight lander
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Credit: NASA

The weather report from Mars, beamed back from InSight

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Dec 18, 2018, 10:53 AM EST (Updated)

This is not the kind of weather update you’ll find on TV. NASA's InSight lander has just returned its first weather data back to Earth after using its short-period seismometer and pressure sensor, which were turned on at the same time, to get a feel for what was going on around it. The InSight science team back on the home planet is obviously excited to see the lander operating as they imagined.

Even though InSight touched down near the Martian equator, where the pressure systems are less intense, it has instruments hypersensitive enough to pick up what is going on at a distance.

"We were able to see the pressure signature of a dust devil and the ground-tilt signature of that same dust devil," Cornell University researcher Don Banfield, who is also a co-investigator on that team, told "It's working as the theory would predict, but I guess I didn't expect it to be quite so clear or dramatic — it's pretty cool."

It even captured the sound of winds blowing across Mars.

Martian dust devils, which occur when the surface is heated by sunlight, are similar to those that whirl around on Earth, and so are its weather systems (with the exception of lower pressure). Mars has seasons that come with high-pressure and low-pressure systems that traverse the planet. However, while water in the form of clouds and humidity rules over our planet’s weather and climate, that on the Red Planet depends highly on how dust storms reflect sunlight and trap radiation.

This is exactly what scientists are looking for. While InSight has only seen a lone dust devil so far, it will eventually study far more powerful storms that can reveal how smaller storms like this can turn into monsters and how much wind power is needed to feed them.

InSight's Temperature and Wind for InSight instrument (TWINS), which is equipped with sensors that can measure heat loss and figure out what direction the wind pulls heat in. Additional attachments measure air pressure. TWINS will eventually build up its capability to measuring Martian winds all day and pulling all-nighters.

“On Mars, it has to be a very sensitive measurement, because the air density is down by this factor of 100 or more, and so the air doesn't actually drag away that much heat from…the probe,” Banfield explained.

There are more exciting things InSight is keeping a robotic eye out for besides dust storms. Its pressure sensor is designed to sense extreme phenomena. If a meteor plummets towards Mars and explodes in the atmosphere close to where the lander is parked, it is likely to pick up the shockwave aftermath.

Something like that probably won’t be broadcast on the nightly news anytime soon.


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