NASA is wrapping up a year-long effort to keep its $813 million InSight lander alive on Mars.
InSight has been running on reduced power ever since layers of dust settled on its solar panels and stayed there. Today, it produces only a tenth of the daily energy it generated at the start of the mission. In 2018, its battery charge was enough to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes. Today, you could only run such a furnace for 10 minutes, according to mission manager Kathya Zamora Garcia.
NASA previously approved funding to run InSight through December 2022, but agency officials said at a news conference Tuesday that they expect power levels to be so low by late summer that the lander will permanently end its missions. scientific operations.
“Based on our current energy level, I’ll be approaching mid-July, maybe early July,” Zamora Garcia said at the briefing. She emphasized that the timeline is not clear and depends on the weather.
Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight’s seismometer has detected more than 1,300 Mars earthquakes and several thousand dust devils. Seismic waves from those earthquakes revealed that the Martian crust is drier and more broken up by asteroid impacts than scientists thought , more like the moon than Earth, and has at least two sublayers. The lander also revealed that Mars has a large liquid core.
“We have been able to map the interior of Mars for the first time in history,” said Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at Tuesday’s news briefing.
Scientists are likely to continue analyzing InSight data for years to come. Since a planet’s entire history is encoded in its inner layers, the findings will help researchers revise their models of how rocky planets form and ultimately inform the study of worlds that could harbor life beyond Earth. our solar system.
“This mission is really near and dear to my heart,” Banerdt said, adding, “I’ve been trying to get a seismometer on Mars for most of my career.”
Although InSight achieved its goal of studying the deep internal structure of Mars, its last year of research on the planet has been routinely interrupted by blackouts to conserve power.
InSight will spend the year slowly shutting down
The lander’s home on an open plain called Elysium Planitia turned out to be less windy than scientists expected, allowing thick accumulations of dust to collect on its solar panels. There is still a chance that a gust of wind could clear the panels and save the spacecraft, but mission leaders are not hopeful.
Dust is a common pest for robots on Mars. The same year InSight landed on Mars, the Opportunity rover’s battery died during a dust storm. It never turned on again. Earlier this month, NASA temporarily lost contact with its four-pound Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, as winter brought a cold that depleted power and increased the concentration of dust in the atmosphere.
InSight’s death will be more gradual than Opportunity’s. It starts in a few weeks, when mission managers plan to move its robotic arm into the “retreat posture,” Zamora Garcia said. Then they will turn off the science instruments one by one, finally saying goodbye to the seismometer in late summer.
After that, they believe InSight will continue to produce enough power to send them a status update every day, along with an occasional photo of Mars. By the end of the year, they hope to lose the lander entirely.
NASA Engineers Struggled To Outwit The Dust And Dirt Of Mars
InSight’s engineering team has spent most of the lander’s mission troubleshooting.
One of the lander’s most prized scientific instruments was a pile driver called “the mole,” which was designed to burrow into the Martian crust and measure the planet’s temperature. The mole immediately ran into a problem: The soil on Elysium Planitia was much harder than NASA scientists expected. Instead of flowing around the mole’s outer hull, providing friction for it to hit deeper, the earth held firm. The mole was supposed to dig 10 feet, but got stuck just an inch or two below the surface.
The NASA team tried to solve the problem for two years, streaming new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm maneuvers to help the mole and eagerly awaiting photos that might show progress. Instead, the mole came out of its hole.
Eventually, the InSight team ran out of options. At the same time, the lander was running out of power. There wasn’t much energy to expend on experimental excavation attempts. They made the difficult decision to abandon their mole.
“That was probably the biggest disappointment of the mission,” Banerdt said.
After that, NASA engineers could only buy time for their lander. The team first tried telling InSight to shake the solar panels, but that didn’t remove the dust.
They then instructed the robot to pick up the dirt and slowly deposit it next to the solar panels. The idea was that some of the big sand grains would get caught in the wind, bounce off the solar panels, and take some lingering dust with them.
It worked, a bit. The first attempt added about 30 watt-hours to the daily power output. The team carried out six of these earth-dripping operations, which generated enough power to keep running the seismometer regularly.
A few months after losing its mole, in 2021, InSight engineers began hibernating the lander for the winter. NASA slowly turned off the lander’s science instruments to conserve its power during the cold months when Mars moved away from the sun, further diminishing InSight’s power supply.
At the time, Banerdt told NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group that the lander’s mission was likely to end shortly after the start of the next Martian winter, in April 2022.
InSight resumed science operations long enough to detect its largest earthquakes yet (three tremors reaching magnitude 4.2) and then an even larger magnitude 5 earthquake on May 4.
“This earthquake is really going to be a treasure trove of scientific information when we get our teeth into it,” Banerdt said.
Just three days later, on May 7, InSight’s power supply dropped below a level that triggers its safety mode, suspending non-essential functions, including science activities, for the second time this year.
Banerdt’s team will spend the next several months conserving the lander’s power and collecting as much data as possible.
“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was kind of a big question mark,” Banerdt said, adding, “Now we can draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of Mars.”