The Mars InSight lander only has “a few weeks” of autonomy left

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The Mars InSight lander is preparing to sink into an eternal slumber under a blanket of Martian dust obscuring the solar arrays as its power is expected to run out in the coming weeks.

NASA announced the unfortunate end of the stationary Martian science lab on Tuesday, saying dust storms gradually coated the craft’s solar panels during its three years on the Martian surface, capped by a dusting earlier this year that left the spacecraft with little energy to perform its objectives.

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transportation, landed on Mars in November 2018 as part of a mission to study the red planet’s underground soil and seismic activity. InSight nearly doubled its original 728-day mission duration and recorded more than 1,300 Marsquakes during that time, NASA said.


A dust-covered selfie of the Mars InSight lander, taken on April 24

Insight now boils down to one tool – its seismometer – which Liz Barrett, InSight mission instruments and science operations manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the team was still collecting data from.

“We push it all the way,” Barrett said. “There will be no heroic steps to restore contact with InSight.” While a mission-saving event – ​​a strong gust of wind, say, clearing the panels – is not out of the question, it is considered as unlikely. “

The final Countdown

InSight may have encountered its share of problems during its mission, but it has still collected digital tons of Martian dirt data since 2018.

One such piece of information that has already been analyzed is the recent Christmas Eve 2021 Marsquake which was determined to actually be the result of a meteoroid impact with the Red Planet. To reach this conclusion, NASA paired recordings from InSight with observations made by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which detected a crater never before seen, and likely new.

Besides this discovery, countless details have yet to be classified and made available to researchers around the world about things like Mars’ inner layers, its core, and subterranean remnants of the Red Planet’s once much larger magnetic field, said The NASA.

JPL’s Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator, said the InSight data will be made available to researchers through NASA’s Planetary Data System and stored in an archive managed by the incorporated research institutions. for seismology – the first non-terrestrial data to be deposited with the group.

Smrekar said InSight’s data is big enough to produce results “for decades.”


The InSight lander shortly after arriving on Mars, taken on December 6, 2018

Once InSight misses two consecutive records with Mars Relay Network satellites in orbit, the mission will be declared complete, handing the task of monitoring InSight for signs of life to NASA’s Deep Space Network, which will continue to listen for a while just in case the lander is relaunched.

Maybe solar power on Mars isn’t the best idea?

While this might not be the best time to mention it, with InSight’s impending death, it’s worth pointing out that solar power might just not be the best choice for a space mission at long term, and there is clear evidence for this conclusion.

“The weather on Mars is not rain and snow; the weather on Mars is dust and wind,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Bandert of JPL.

The dust doesn’t melt, which means it’s up to a fortuitous breeze to bring a lander back to life. Additionally, the force of the Sun on Mars is only about 44% as strong as on Earth, which means that there is far less solar energy reaching the panels, even when they are clean.

And while InSight has still exceeded its planned duration (which are always conservative estimates), that’s still nothing compared to the mission duration of the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, which NASA planned to operate for two years. when it landed on the Red Planet in 2012. NASA quickly extended Curiosity’s mission duration to “indefinite” and believes it could have 55 years of energy at its disposal.

Do you think you see a solar panel on this rover? No – it runs entirely on electricity generated by the radioactive decay of a 10.6 lb (4.8 kg) piece of plutonium dioxide.

NASA has used similar power systems for other craft, such as the Apollo Moon missions, Viking Mars missions and others, and said the system is safe enough not to pose a health hazard “unless it is not broken into very fine pieces or vaporized and then inhaled or swallowed.” Even then, the expected radiation dose would be negligible, NASA said.

Expect that dose to be even lower by the time a human astronaut might take a trip to visit Curiosity, which could easily spin again if humans travel to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

A visit to solar-powered InSight, on the other hand, would be a memorial trip to talk about what might have happened differently if only the lander had a more reliable power source. ®

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