NASA confirms the imminent end of InSight

WASHINGTON – NASA’s InSight Mars lander mission will likely wrap up by the end of the year as spacecraft power levels continue to decline, project officials confirmed May 17.

In a briefing on the mission, which has been on the surface of Mars since November 2018, project leaders said science operations will likely end in July when production of the spacecraft’s two dust-covered solar panels , fall below critical levels. Increased dust levels in the atmosphere due to seasonal changes are exacerbating the energy decline.

In the coming weeks, controllers will begin shutting down some science instruments as they put the lander’s robotic arm into a “retreat posture,” with the camera aimed to view the lander’s main instrument, a seismometer. That seismometer, which has been running continuously for most of the mission, will switch to intermittent operations this summer to conserve power before shutting down completely later this summer.

The seismometer shutdown, which would end the lander’s science operations, could be as early as mid-July, said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight’s deputy project manager. The project hopes to maintain intermittent contact, including an occasional camera image, until later this year, when power levels drop below what is needed to operate together.

There is some uncertainty in that timeline, including the hope that the lander might be able to operate longer. “We’re in an operational regime that we’ve never been in before,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL. “As the power goes down, we’re really not sure how well the spacecraft will perform. It has exceeded our expectations in almost every turn on Mars. It can last longer than that.

The project has been warning for some time that as dust continues to accumulate on the lander’s solar panels, power levels will drop and jeopardize the mission. Banerdt told an advisory committee meeting in February that power levels would drop below what is needed to operate science instruments by May or June, and below the lander’s “survivability” by the end of anus.

Banerdt and others expected a “cleaning event” to remove dust from the panels, like a dust storm or gust of wind. The panels generated 5,000 watt-hours of power per Martian day upon landing, but now produce only a tenth of that. Even a modest cleanup event could boost power levels enough to keep the mission running.

Engineers tried other means of cleaning the solar panels, using the robotic arm to pick up the regolith and drop it near the panels, allowing the wind to pick up the grains and bounce them off the panels, shaking off accumulated dust in the process. . That created temporary surges in power, which Garcia said provided another four to six weeks of lander instrument operations.

Banerdt said, in hindsight, that he wishes the lander had some kind of mechanism to clean dust off the arrays, but that was one of the trade-offs for the mission to fit the cost cap of the Discovery program. “If we put more money into solar panels, we would have less to put into science instruments, so we try to find the right balance,” he said.

Despite its imminent demise, NASA called InSight a success, operating well beyond its prime mission of one Martian year. That assessment comes despite the fact that one of its main instruments, a heat flux probe, was unable to dig into the surface as planned due to ground conditions that instrument designers did not anticipate based on what had been anticipated. seen at other landing sites on the planet.

That success includes the strongest “marsquake” measured to date by the lander on May 4, estimated at magnitude 5. Banerdt said scientists are still analyzing the data to try to identify the source of the quake, which appears be out of a known fault. zone.

“There really hasn’t been too much pessimism in the team. We are still focused on operating the spacecraft,” he added. “We are still figuring out how to get the most scientific benefit out of it.”

The project hasn’t ruled out trying to reestablish contact with InSight next year in case a cleanup event removes the dust from the arrays. NASA’s recent senior review of planetary missions found there may be a slim chance of doing so in mid-2023 after the winter season at the landing site.

“The Martian environment is very uncertain. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Garcia said, with communication sessions planned just in case. “We will be listening.”

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