NASA InSight Mars mission is dead after 4 years of listening for Marsquakes

NASA InSight Mars mission is dead after 4 years of listening for Marsquakes

NASA InSight Mars mission is dead after 4 years of listening for Marsquakes

NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft is dead.

Mission managers have been expecting this for months piled up like dust on the lander’s solar panels, blocking the sunlight the stationary spacecraft needs to generate power.

InSight, which one arrived on the surface of Mars more than four years ago measure the seismic shaking of the red planetlast had contact on 15 December. But nothing was heard during the last two communication attempts, and NASA announced Wednesday that it was unlikely to ever hear from InSight again.

“I feel sad, but I also feel pretty good,” Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in an interview. “We’ve been expecting this to end for a while.”

He added: “I think it’s been a great run.”

InSight – the name is a contraction of the mission’s full name, Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – was a derivative of NASA’s better-known rover missions, targeting the mysteries of the deep interior of Mars instead of searching for signs of water and possibly extinct life on the red planet. The $830 million mission aimed to answer questions about the planet’s structure, composition and geologic history.

Mars lacks plate tectonics, the shifting of crustal pieces that make up our planet’s surface. But marsquakes do occur, driven by other stresses such as the shrinking and cracking of the crust as it cools.

The final year of the mission proved particularly eventful, as the instruments discovered vibrations of a bulky space rock, 15 to 40 feet in diameter, hit Mars 2,000 miles away from the spacecraft on Christmas Eve last year. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was then able to photograph the new crater and chunks of subterranean ice kicked to the surface by the impact. That ice discovery was closer to the equator than previously observed, a potential resource for future astronauts.

In May, InSight measured a Marsquake with a force of 4.7 on the Richter scale, the largest on the mission.

The spacecraft’s seismometer met scientists’ expectations. It was the first time earthquakes had been observed on another planet. (It wasn’t the first detection of earthquakes beyond Earth, though. During the Apollo missions, NASA astronauts left seismometers on the moon, and they recorded numerous lunar quakes.)

The seismic waves bouncing around Mars’ interior essentially echoed the planet, revealing new details about the crust, mantle and core.

This was the biggest achievement of the mission, said Dr. Banerdt, “to actually map the planet’s deep interior.”

The crust under InSight turned out to be thinner than expected, about 15 to 25 miles. The red planet’s core is still molten, somewhat of a surprise to scientists because Mars is much smaller than Earth. The core is also larger than expected — 1,000 miles across — and less dense than predicted, suggesting lighter elements mixed with the iron. Those elements would lower the melting point, which could help explain why the core isn’t solid.

The geological structure helps scientists understand how quickly heat seeps out of Mars, which in turn helps them reconstruct what the surface looked like several billion years ago and how habitable the surface was then.

“We’ve done groundbreaking work and our science team can be proud of everything we’ve learned along the way,” Philippe Lognonné of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, principal investigator of the InSight seismometer, said in a statement from NASA.

However, a second instrument, designed to dig 16 feet underground, was never able to get far below the surface, foiled by unexpectedly lumpy ground. Nicknamed “the mole,” the device was intended to measure the flow of heat emanating from the deep interior of Mars.

“That was a big disappointment,” said Dr. Banerdt.

Other instruments on InSight measured the weather on Mars and the remnants of an ancient magnetic field preserved in the rocks.

Dr. Banerdt said it’s still possible InSight will come back to life, especially if one of the small dust devil cyclones sweeping across the Martian landscape passes over the spacecraft and clears the dust.

If the solar panels can charge the batteries, InSight would try to reboot and try to reconnect. Radio transmissions from a revived InSight could interfere with communications sent by other NASA spacecraft on Mars.

“If we start seeing that signal consistently, that would tell us that InSight might be up and running again,” said Dr. Banerdt.

As InSight draws to a close, one of NASA’s other active spacecraft on the Martian surface, the Perseverance rover, is paving the way for a future mission. It has started dropping on the ground 10 tubes with rock samples about the size of a piece of chalk.

Perseverance has been drilling different rocks in the Jezero crater where it landed. A follow-up mission still in the planning stages, Mars Sample Return, is to return the rocks to Earth for scientists study in their laboratories.

The rover is still carrying other tubes — two samples have been drilled for the rocks drilled so far — and the plan is for the rover to take the sample tubes to the Mars Sample Return lander.

The samples now being dropped on the ground are essentially a backup in case something goes wrong with Perseverance before the Mars Sample Return lander gets there. In that case, the plan would be to land the lander near the monsters Perseverance had already dropped and then helicopters, similar to the Ingenuity Marscopter currently accompanying the rover would retrieve the samples.

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