SEIS-SP: Designing sensors to detect quakes and search for buried water on Mars

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has awarded a contract to Imperial College, London to design a series of sensors to detect Marsquakes.

These sensors are intended for launch in 2007. The mission, led by the French space agency CNES, will be the first to look deep inside another planet. The internal structure of Mars is a key to understanding some fundamental questions about the planet including whether life ever existed there. The sensors might even detect water reservoirs hidden below the surface, where life could possibly survive on Mars today.

Dr Tom Pike, of Imperial College, is designing the heart of the sensor, a two-centimetre square of silicon. He said, “We’re micromachining a near-perfect spring and weight from a single piece of silicon. We’ll be able to detect the weight shuddering in response to a Marsquake from anywhere on the planet.” Imperial College is working with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire, to build prototypes of the sensors.

The 2007 NetLander mission will land four modules across the surface of Mars, each containing instruments to look at the structure and weather of Mars on a global scale. “The network of instruments will help us to pinpoint each Marsquake,” said Dr Pike. “We’ll look at how the vibrations from Marsquakes travel through the planet and work out what’s going on deep inside. We may even be able to find buried water under the apparently dry surface. That’s when the search for life on Mars will move underground.” The Marsquake instrument team includes Imperial College, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Institute de Physique du Globe in Paris and ETH, Zürich.