NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Has Only Weeks To Live
The end is near for NASA’s Marsquake fighter.
“The spacecraft’s power generation continues to decline as the wind-blown dust on the solar arrays thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue with the remaining power for as long as possible,” NASA officials wrote in an update (opens in new tab) on Tuesday (1 Nov.). “The end is expected to come in the coming weeks.”
InSight landed in November 2018, on a mission to help scientists map The interior of Mars in unprecedented detail. The lander has succeeded in that goal, detecting more than 1,300 illuminating Marsquakes.
“Watching the seismic waves from those earthquakes change as they travel through the planet provides an invaluable glimpse into the interior of Mars, but also gives a better understanding of how all rocky worlds, including Soil and its moon, shape,” NASA officials wrote in the update. (InSight was supposed to supplement its Marsquake data with measurements from a burrowing heat probe, but the latter instrument failed to get deep enough underground to do its job.)
InSight has more than survived its primary mission life of two Earth years. But the clock is ticking, thanks to the dust that regularly rains on its solar panels. The buildup of dust got so bad this summer that the mission team had to shut down all of InSight’s other instruments to keep the seismometer suite running.
“We were at less than 20% of original production capacity,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California said in Tuesday’s update. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments around the clock.”
Things got worse after a recent dust storm dumped even more grains on the already ruddy InSight. The mission team turned off the lander’s seismometer to conserve power during the storm. It’s back on now, but power will probably run out in a few weeks.
The close-knit InSight team of about 30 people is busy preparing for the end of the mission, including archiving collected data for future scientific studies and packaging a twin engineering model called “ForeSight”, which was (partially) used to solve the problems with the burrowing heat probe. (Those attempts were unsuccessful.)
“We’ll pack it with love,” Banerdt said of ForeSight, which will be placed in storage, possibly for future missions. “It’s been a great tool, a great companion to us throughout this mission.”
There is no rescue plan for InSight, which was launched without solar panel cleaning measures due to weight and power issues. Sometimes Mars missions are lucky enough to have a gust of wind that blows dust away, but it’s unlikely there will be enough wind at this point to significantly extend InSight’s life, NASA officials stressed.
The agency won’t declare the mission over until InSight misses two check-ins with the spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet and sending its information back to Earth, as NASA’s Mars exploration orbiter. Even after that, NASA’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen in on radio dishes in case the lander calls home.
The team’s focus in the coming weeks will be to squeeze as much science out of Insight as possible, just as they’ve done for the past few months.
“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. The weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why am I taller? (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or facebook (opens in new tab).
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