NASA Prepares to Say Goodbye to InSight Spacecraft – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander
A closer look at what’s involved in completing the mission as the spacecraft’s power supply continues to decline.
The day is approaching when NASA’s Mars InSight lander will shut up and put an end to its history-making mission to uncover secrets of the Red Planet’s interior. The spacecraft’s power generation continues to decline as the wind-blown dust on the solar panels thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue using the remaining power for as long as possible. The end is expected to come in the coming weeks.
But while the tight-knit operations team of 25 to 30 members — a small group compared to other Mars missions — continues to squeeze the most out of InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), they have also begun take steps to complete the mission.
Here’s a glimpse of what that looks like.
The most important of the final steps of the InSight mission is to store the wealth of data and make it accessible to researchers around the world. The lander’s data has provided details about the inner layersits liquid core, the surprisingly variable remnants beneath the surface of its largely extinct magnetic field, the weather on this part of Mars, and plenty of earthquake activity.
InSight’s seismometersupplied by France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), has detected more than 1,300 Marsquakes since the lander landed in November 2018, the largest measuring a magnitude 5. It even recorded earthquakes from meteoroid impacts. Observing how the seismic waves from those earthquakes change as they travel through the planet provides an invaluable glimpse into Mars’ interior, but also gives a better understanding of how all rocky worlds, including Earth and its moon, form.
“Finally, we can see Mars as a planet with layers, with different thicknesses and compositions,” said Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re really starting to tease out the details. Now it’s not just this riddle; it’s basically a living, breathing planet.”
The seismometer readings will join the only other set of extraterrestrial seismic data, from the Apollo moon missions, in NASA’s Planetary Data System. They will also go to an international archive maintained by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, which houses “all data locations of the terrestrial seismic network,” said Sue Smrekar of JPL, InSight’s deputy principal investigator. “Now we also have one on Mars.”
Smrekar said the data is expected to yield discoveries for decades to come.
Earlier this summer, the lander had so little power left that the mission shut down all of InSight’s other science instruments to… to keep the seismometer going. They’ve even disabled the fault protection system that would otherwise shut down the seismometer automatically if the system detects the lander’s power generation is dangerously low.
“We had less than 20% of the original production capacity,” Banerdt says. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments around the clock.”
Recently, after a regional dust storm added to the lander’s dust-covered solar panels, the team decided to shut down the seismometer altogether to conserve energy. Now that the storm has passed, the seismometer is collecting data again, although the mission expects the lander to have only a few more weeks of power.
Of the seismometer’s array of sensors, only the most sensitive were still in operation, said Liz Barrett, who leads science and instrumental operations for JPL’s team, adding, “We’re pushing it to the end.”
A silent member of the team is ForeSight, the full-scale technical model from InSight in JPLs Instrument laboratory in situ. Engineers used ForeSight to practice how InSight would place scientific instruments on the surface of Mars with the lander’s robotic arm, test techniques to get the lander’s heat probe into the sticky Mars soiland develop ways to reduce noise picked up by the seismometer.
ForeSight is crated and stored. “We’ll pack it with love,” Banerdt said. “It’s been a great tool, a great companion to us throughout this mission.”
Indicate end of mission
NASA declares the mission over when InSight misses two consecutive communications with the spacecraft orbiting Mars, part of the Mars relay network – but only if the cause of the missed communication is the lander itself, says JPL network administrator Roy Gladden. Then, NASA’s Deep Space Network will listen for a while, just in case.
No heroic measures will be taken to re-establish contact with InSight. While a mission-saving event — say a strong gust of wind sweeping the panels clean — isn’t out of the question, it’s considered unlikely.
In the meantime, as long as InSight stays in touch, the team will continue to collect data. “We will continue to do scientific measurements for as long as we can,” Banerdt said. “We are at the mercy of Mars. The weather on Mars is not rain and snow; weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
More about the mission
JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, administered by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.
A number of European partners, including the French Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), support the InSight mission. CNES provided the interior structure seismic experiment (SIX) instrument at NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions to SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the heat flow and physical properties package (HP3) instrument, with major contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) supplied a passive laser retro-reflector.
News Media Contacts
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Written by Pat Brennan
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