After tuning three-and-a-half years to the Martian subsurface, NASA’s InSight Mars lander mission ends.
During a conference call on Tuesday, the InSight team announced that the stationary probe’s solar panels are covered in Martian dust, blocking the power source. This means that InSight will slowly start preparing for its retirement, with scientific operations reaching their finals by the end of this summer.
This update comes just two weeks after the probe’s highly sensitive seismometer detected the strongest earthquake ever on another planet.
When InSight first reached Mars in November 2018, “we were at about 5,000 watt-hours per sol,” Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight’s deputy project manager, said at the press conference. “Sol” refers to a Martian day. “Today we’re at about a tenth of that available power, about 500 watt-hours per sol.”
Martian dust covers the solar panels, which “limits the amount of activities we can do,” she said. “That includes rotating the seismometer, other instruments and moving our arm.”
This nasty material also destroyed NASA’s Opportunity rover in 2019, though that mission lasted significantly longer than InSight. The rover reached Mars with its robotic twin, Spirit, in 2004.
InSight’s decommissioning process will begin in the coming weeks. In the spring of 2022, the mission team will continuously run InSight’s seismometer and instruct InSight’s arm to perform a few maneuvers, she said. “After that, we will place the arm in a retirement position.” The new inverted V position allows the camera attached to the arm to capture images from the seismometer with much less energy.
“By the end of the summer of 2022, we expect our seismometer to shut down,” she said.
“This is really a super-sensitive seismometer, measuring ground motion at an incredibly accurate level, down to the scale of the radius of a single atom,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, during the official announcement.
“This mission is very close to my heart,” Banerdt added. The team will complete most of the scientific observations by the end of the summer and will officially finish by the end of the calendar year, Zamora Garcia said.
The new mission has been listening to the Red Planet’s interior since it reached Elysium Planitia, a flat plain a few degrees north of the planet’s equator, in November 2018. about the same length as Florida’s Atlantic coast. But unlike its wheeled brother, InSight is stationary.
Because it has listened to underground rumbles, InSight has enabled scientists to take an in-depth look at our neighboring rocky world. The waves show evidence of the planet’s internal activity. As seismic waves pass through material below the surface, InSight can discern their characteristics. This can help identify some of the geology deep below.
The team had successfully completed a cleanup maneuver six times, throwing Martian debris into the air for the wind to carry it over the dusty solar panels and clear them up somewhat. They did this six times, Zamora Garcia said, helping the team cope with the major earthquake earlier this month.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from all the challenges we’ve endured in the Martian environment, and we hope this will be carried over to future missions,” Garcia said.
“It’s been an incredible mission for us. It has given us a glimpse of Mars that we couldn’t get with any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Interpretations of the InSight data have really improved our understanding of how rocky planets in the universe formed.”