November 06, 2023 - by Barbara Vonarburg, ETH Zurich

For four years, NASA’s InSight lander recorded tremors on Mars with its seismometer. Researchers at ETH Zurich collected and analysed the data transmitted to Earth to determine the planet’s internal structure. “Although the mission ended in December 2022, we have now discovered something very interesting,” recounts Amir Khan, a Senior Scientist in the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich. 

In fact, an analysis of the recorded marsquakes combined with simulations carried out on CSCS’s supercomputer “Piz Daint”, paint a new picture of the planet’s interior: Sandwiched between Mars’s liquid iron alloy core and its solid silicate mantle lies a layer of liquid silicate about 150 kilometres thick. “Earth doesn’t have a completely molten silicate layer like that,” Khan says. 

This finding, now published in Nature alongside a study by the Institut de Physique de Globe de Paris that reaches a similar conclusion using complimentary methods, also provides new information on the size and composition of Mars’ core, resolving a mystery that researchers have been unable to explain before. 

Previously, an analysis of the initially observed marsquakes had shown that the average density of the Martian core had to be significantly lower than that of pure liquid iron. The Earth’s core, for example, consists of about 90 percent iron by weight. Light elements such as sulphur, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen make up a combined total of around 10 percent by weight. Initial estimates of the density of the Martian core showed that it is comprised of a much larger share of light elements — around 20 percent by weight. “This represents a very large complement of light elements, bordering on the impossible. We have been wondering about this result ever since,” says Dongyang Huang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich. 

Core denser than expected 

The new observations show that the radius of the Martian core is decidedly smaller than the initially determined 1,800 to 1,850 kilometres and measures between 1,650 and 1,700 kilometres, which is about 50 percent of the total radius of Mars. And when the Martian core is smaller than previously thought but has the same mass, it follows that its density is greater and that it, therefore, contains fewer light elements. According to the new calculations, the proportion of light elements dropped to 9–14 percent by weight. 

“This means that the average density of the Martian core is still somewhat low, but no longer inexplicable in the context of typical planet formation scenarios,” says Paolo Sossi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich and member of the National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs) PlanetS. The fact that the Martian core contains a significant number of light elements indicates that it must have formed very early, possibly when the Sun was still surrounded by the nebula gas from which light elements could have accumulated in the Martian core. 

Simulations to provide references 

Initial calculations were based on quakes that had occurred near the InSight lander. However, in August and September 2021, the seismometer registered two quakes that had occurred on the opposite side of Mars. “These quakes produced seismic waves that traversed the core and that, therefore, allowed us to analyse the core,” explains Cecilia Duran, a PhD student at ETH Zurich. In the earlier marsquakes, the waves had been reflected at the core-mantle boundary, and thus carried no information about the Martian core. As a result of these new observations, the researchers could now determine the density and seismic wave speed profiles in the core to a depth of about 1,000 kilometres. 

To infer the composition of a material from such profiles, researchers usually compare the data with that of synthetic iron alloys containing different proportions of light elements (S, C, O, and H). In the lab, these alloys are exposed to high temperatures and pressures equivalent to those found in the interior of planets to then measure density and seismic wave speed. However, most of these experiments refer to the Earth’s interior and are hardly applicable to Mars. That’s why the ETH team used quantum-mechanical calculations on “Piz Daint” to identify the properties of a variety of alloys. 

However, as the researchers compared the calculated profiles with the seismic data, they encountered a problem. It turned out that no material matched the values at both the interior and outer rim of the Martian core. For example, at the core-mantle boundary, the matching iron alloy would have needed to contain much more carbon than in the core’s interior. “That made us realise that the region we had previously considered to be the outer rim of the liquid iron core was not the core after all, but actually the innermost part of the mantle,” explains Huang. In support of this, the researchers found that the profiles measured and computed in the outermost 150 kilometres of the core were, in fact, consistent with those of molten silicates — the same material that, in solid form, makes up the Martian mantle. 

Further analysis of earlier marsquakes and additional simulations confirmed this result. Regrettably however, the dusty solar panels and the resulting lack of power made it impossible for the InSight lander to provide additional data that could have shed more light on the composition and structure of Mars’s interior, as Khan recounts. “Yet, InSight was a very successful mission that provided us with a lot of new data and insights that will be analysed for years to come.”

Image above: An artist’s depiction of Mars and its iron core. Analysis of Martian seismic data recorded by the InSight mission have revealed that the liquid iron core is surrounded by a 150 km thick molten silicate layer, as a consequence of which its core is smaller and denser than previously proposed. (Artwork: Thibaut Roger, NCCR Planet S / ETH Zürich)

Original article from ETH Zurich >