Marsquakes—Detecting Seismic Activity on Mars


"Using SignalExpress and a multifunction USB DAQ device to implement our solution was extremely efficient and we plan to use the setup for our more detailed follow-up studies in the near future."

- Nicholas Teanby, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

The Challenge:
Determining the effect of wind noise on tripod mounted seismometers deployed by NASA’s InSight mission to Mars.

The Solution:
Developing field experiments with a comparable full-scale tripod and seismometer setup using NI multifunction USB DAQ and SignalExpress for live data analysis.

Nicholas Teanby - School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
Jenny Taylor - School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
James Wookey - School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is scheduled for launch in March 2016 and should land on Mars in September 2016. The mission aims to detect marsquakes and seismic signals from meteorite impacts to probe the planet’s internal structure. After landing and performing an initial site investigation, a robot arm will deploy dual three-axis seismometers to the surface on a tripod levelling system.

As Mars has no oceans, scientists expect wind and thermal noise to be the major seismic noise source. To combat this, the seismometers will be protected from the environment by using a wind and thermal shield (WTS). Wind-induced vibrations on the WTS will be transmitted through the ground to the instruments. Our goal was to quantify this noise to aid in mission planning and to ensure we are able to make the most accurate measurements possible.

Figure1. The Mars InSight lander is shown, with seismometer deployed under the wind and thermal shield in the foreground. Image credit NASAJPL-Caltech


To investigate the wind noise we fabricated a 1:1 scale model of the inner seismometer tripod and outer WTS tripod. We fitted the outer WTS tripod with an electromechanical noise source to represent wind vibrations. Also, we instrumented both inner and outer tripods with commercial seismometers. We logged the seismic signals using an NI multifunction USB DAQ device and SignalExpress software. The ratio between the signals gave the transfer function of the ground between the outer WTS and inner seismometer tripods. We used this to quantify the fraction of wind vibrations generated on the WTS that were transmitted through the ground to the instruments.

We were taking measurements in the field, so we enclosed the USB DAQ device in an IP68-rated aluminium enclosure to protect it from dirt and rain. We used the guidelines on the NI website and in the device manual to minimise noise and eliminate cross talk.

(a)                                                                                                                 (b)


Figure 2. (a) The data logging setup shows the USB-6210 device enclosed in a ruggedized case (centre) and run through a car battery-powered laptop running SignalExpress. (b) The scale model of the InSight seismometer and WTS tripods are instrumented with commercial geophones (yellow) and an electromechanical noise source.

Impact of Results

We can combine the measurements of WTS to seismometer coupling with numerical models of wind noise to predict ambient wind induced noise levels once the instruments are deployed on the surface of Mars. As wind noise is the dominant noise source on Mars, we can determine the smallest marsquake that the mission will be able to detect.

Solution Benefits

Before deciding to use NI DAQ hardware, we investigated conventional seismic data loggers to make sure we got the best hardware for our application. However, standard seismic setups are designed for long-term deployments and the user cannot rapidly access and visualize the raw data—a capability that was vital to our analysis.

We chose to use SignalExpress and USB DAQ hardware for our experiments because they deliver a simple and reconfigurable setup. The multichannel capability of the USB-6210 device suited our application as it had 16-bit precision so we could achieve the high accuracy we needed. The scalable input voltage ranges helped us push digitization noise far below ambient noise levels at our field sites.

On the software side, the interactive user interface on SignalExpress delivers immediate quality control of the data in the field and live data analysis. We could start taking measurements rapidly and our efficiency significantly increased compared to conventional seismic data logging setups. Each measurement took under a minute, which included 30 seconds for data acquisition, 15 seconds for quality control, and 15 seconds to reset the noise source. This rapid turnaround was essential as we had multiple tripod configurations to test and limited field time.


The results of this preliminary study allowed us to quantify expected levels of ground coupled wind noise on Mars with the aim of determining the smallest possible marsquake detectable with NASA/InSight. Using SignalExpress and a multifunction USB DAQ device to implement our solution was extremely efficient and we plan to use the setup for our more detailed follow-up studies in the near future.

Author Information:
Nicholas Teanby
School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
School of Earth Sciences, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol, Queen's Road
Bristol BS8 1RJ
United Kingdom
Tel: 0117 3315006

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