NASA begins countdown to the end of the InSight Mars mission

NASA’s InSight spacecraft isn’t dead yet.

But InSight, a stationary robotic probe on Mars, has been steadily weakening as dust collects on its solar panels. Mission managers predict that by the end of the summer it will not have enough power to continue operating its instruments and that by the end of the year it will be silent.

“That’s just due to a lack of power,” Kathya Zamora Garcia, the mission’s deputy project scientist, said during a news conference Tuesday.

The spacecraft might get lucky if a dust devil, a miniature whirlpool that swirls across the Martian landscape, passes by and blows dust off the solar panels. Although several thousand dust devils have been detected in the area, none have usefully cleaned InSight.

“We’re not very hopeful given that it’s been three and a half years and we haven’t seen one yet,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator, “but it could still happen.”

When InSight landed in November 2018, its pristine solar arrays generated 5,000 watt-hours of power each Martian day. Now, wrapped in dust, they are producing a tenth of that.

The spacecraft met its primary objectives during its two-year primary mission; NASA then approved a two-year extension through the end of 2022.

As power dwindles, administrators will begin shutting down the spacecraft’s instruments and stowing away its mechanical arm. They’ll try to keep the ship’s main science tool, a sensitive seismometer, running as long as possible, though in a couple of weeks they’ll start running it only part of the day, or maybe even every other day, rather than continuously. .

Ms. Garcia said that the seismometer would probably have to be turned off completely sometime in July. After that, there will be enough power to connect with radio communications and maybe take an occasional picture.

Once InSight loses power, it will join a variety of NASA missions abandoned on the Red Planet after long and successful voyages, including the two Viking landers that were laid down in 1976 and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that arrived in 2004 for 90-day missions, but it lasted for years. NASA still has two other rovers and an experimental helicopter studying the Martian surface, and China has a rover in operation there.

Most of NASA’s missions to Mars in the past two decades have focused on the possibility that the fourth planet from the sun may have once been hospitable to life.

InSight, the name is a compression of the mission’s full name, Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, was a diversion, focusing instead on the mysteries of Mars’ deep interior. The $830 million mission was intended to answer questions about the planet’s structure, composition, and geological history.

Mars lacks plate tectonics, the sliding of pieces of crust that shapes our planet’s surface. However, marsquakes do occur, driven by other tectonic stresses, such as the crust shrinking and cracking as it cools.

During its mission, InSight recorded more than 1,300 marsquakes. Just two weeks ago, she observed the largest marsquake yet: a magnitude 5.0, modest by Earth standards but on the high end of what scientists expected for Mars.

The epicenter of the magnitude 5.0 quake was located near a series of fissures known as the Cerberus Fossae, where many previously detected marsquakes occurred, Dr. Banerdt said. But he added: “It’s not actually in Cerberus Fossae, which is interesting. And we don’t really understand that yet.”

He said scientists had only two weeks to analyze the data, but they could clearly see the seismic signals, and the quake could have been large enough to cause Mars to start vibrating like a bell, albeit at frequencies too low to be detected. . she heard.

“This earthquake is really going to be a treasure trove of scientific information when we get our teeth into it,” Dr. Banerdt said.

By listening to the echoes of seismic waves bouncing off the interior of Mars, InSight produced data that could be turned into a three-dimensional map of the planet.

The crust turned out to be thinner than expected and appears to consist of three sublayers. Seismic signals also measured the size of the core: about 2,300 miles across.

The seismometer revealed not only what was below, but also the dynamics in the air above. Winds blowing 10 to 15 miles per hour over InSight’s solar arrays caused the spacecraft to vibrate, and the spacecraft recorded the vibrations, which were transformed into sounds.

InSight’s other main instrument, a heat probe that was to dig about 16 feet into the Martian soil, failed to fully deploy.

Despite two years of effort, the instrument, nicknamed the “mole,” never got much more than an inch below the surface. The soil where she landed tended to clump together, a property that was different from material found elsewhere on Mars. The crushing reduced the surface area of ​​soil pressed against the sides of the mole and, with insufficient friction, it could not be hammered down.

“It turned out that the particular soil that was under InSight, when we landed, had a consolidated layer of crusty soil on top,” said Dr. Banerdt. “And that crust, the ground disintegrated when the mole tried to get in.”

Without the underground mole, scientists didn’t get the expected measurements of the heat leaving the planet, which would have revealed more precise data about the interior temperatures of Mars today and the energy that drives geological processes.

“That’s what we lost,” Dr. Banerdt said.

Even after InSight is silenced, there will still be a chance that a passing dust storm could sweep away the solar panels and the spacecraft could revive.

“We will be listening,” Ms. Garcia said. “And once we get some beeps, if that happens again, if there’s a natural cleanup, then we’ll assess if there’s enough power to get the lander back up and running.”

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