A trailblazing Mars lander may have just sent home one last haunting image
It’s almost time to say goodbye to another Martian friend. Numerous missions to the Red Planet have stalled for the last time, some after many successful years of data collection and some after a brief fireball free fall. We’ll be adding another Mars explorer to that ever-growing list soon – Insight would have sent home his final image.
The image itself is comparable to hundreds of others the probe has sent back to Earth over the past four years. In the center of the image is the vessel’s seismometer, which has focused on collecting data on marquis and whose data has been used in dozens of newspapers. In this image, however, it is noticeably covered in the fine red dust that covers everything on the Red Planet.
Here’s the image, taken on November 6, 2022:
That dust also covers InSight’s power source. The solar panels are collectively more covered and can therefore supply less and less power to the lander itself. Unfortunately, InSight also had the good or the bad luck of being in an area of general tranquility for the dust devils of Mars. While they may be difficult for the instruments themselves to handle, dust devils also do a remarkably good job cleaning solar panels covered in dust.
Another fact in the growing dust build-up was a design decision the InSight team made at the start of the project. Several methods can help to remove dust from solar panels. Two of the most common are compressed air and wiper blades similar to those found on cars. But the engineers at InSight decided not to include such a system in their probe.
Making those kinds of decisions is one of the most difficult parts of engineering. Dust removal systems add weight and therefore cost more money, both in design and in getting them to Mars. Launch costs still take up a significant chunk of the project budget, so each system is scrutinized to see if it’s really needed. In the case of Insight, the team determined that a dust removal system was not.
There was one critical factor that led to that decision: Insight’s relatively short expected mission duration as a whole. It was supposed to last only one Earth year. It ended up being four.
What’s next for InSight
JPL video discussing InSight’s performance. Credit – NASA JPL YouTube Channel
Even without a dust removal system, the mission performed better than original expectations. And Insight has solidified its position as one of the most prolific Mars probes to date. Its data has been the basis of dozens of papers, and we’ve come to understand everything from the presence (or lack thereof) of liquid water around the lander to finding some magma in the same area.
Such data would make any scientific team proud, and those involved in Insight have had plenty of time to see the end coming. The UT first reported on the power problems in May. But while things have continued to go strong for the past six months, it may soon be time to say goodbye to interior exploration using seismic surveys, geodesy and heat transport missions. It will not be forgotten and perhaps someday brought back to life when people finally step into the landscape so far only seen it.
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