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NASA's InSight lander captures first 'sounds' of wind on Mars

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By Denise Chow

Scientists have known for decades how the vast and barren landscapes of Mars look. Now, researchers are getting their first taste of what the Red Planet sounds like.

NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on Mars less than two weeks ago, has recorded vibrations — low-pitched, guttural rumblings — caused by wind blowing across the science instruments on the spacecraft’s deck.

“Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a written statement.

Unaltered, these vibrations are barely audible, because they were recorded at a frequency of 50 hertz, at the low end of what the human ear can detect, according to Thomas Pike, the lead scientist for InSight’s Short Period Seismometer, one of two instruments that picked up the subtle movements.

NASA also released a sample of the same audio file that was shifted up about six octaves, to within a range audible to humans. That recording — which at times sounds like a regular blustery day on Earth and other times has the muted, hollow quality reminiscent of being underwater — would essentially be what a person would hear if they were sitting on the InSight lander on Mars, said Don Banfield, the science lead for InSight’s air pressure sensor and a planetary scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“Personally, listening to the sound from the pressure sensor reminds me of sitting outside on a windy afternoon, listening to the turbulent gusts come and go and whistle through my ears,” Banfield told reporters Friday in a news briefing.

InSight’s air pressure sensor and seismometer recorded the vibrations while both instruments were still on the lander’s deck. Since the spacecraft touched down on Mars, mission scientists have been powering up and testing each instrument before they are physically placed on the Martian surface. This allowed researchers to collect information — such as vibrations from the Red Planet’s wind — while the instruments are still atop the lander.

“We realized we had the opportunity to get a really unique data set out of this,” Banerdt said in the news briefing.

The wind in the recordings is estimated to be blowing at 10 to 15 miles per hour, according to NASA. The vibrations were captured on Dec. 1, when gusts were blowing past the lander from northwest to southeast.

The 800-pound InSight lander is on a two-year mission to study the deep interior of Mars. The spacecraft, which is parked on a broad plain north of the Martian equator known as Elysium Planitia, will measure the frequency and magnitude of marsquakes and show how heat from deep inside Mars makes its way to the surface.

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