NASA’s InSight lander is scheduled to retire from Mars after four years of service.
At a special meeting of key personnel for the InSight mission on Tuesday, May 17, it was confirmed that increasing levels of dust on the lander’s two 7-foot-wide solar panels meant that science operations would likely be shut down by the end of this summer, or completely in December without electricity.
Packed with an array of scientific tools, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes – including a recent one measured as the strongest tremor ever detected on any other planet – and also pinpointed earthquake-prone regions of the Red Planet. Overall, the mission was a great success as the lander achieved its primary objectives within the first two years of its deployment.
“InSight has changed our understanding of the interior of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions,” called Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “We can apply what we’ve learned about the internal structure of Mars to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”
InSight has been gradually losing performance due to dust buildup on its solar panels, which have been gradually blocking out sunlight. When it arrived on Mars in 2018, the panels produced about 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day (a bit longer than an Earth day), but today they produce about 500 watt-hours each Martian day. To provide some context, NASA says these types of energy levels would run an electric furnace for 100 minutes and 10 minutes, respectively.
The worsening situation means the team is now preparing to move the lander’s robotic arm to its resting position — known as “retirement pose” — later this month.
It’s worth noting that the arm played a key role in extending the lander’s mission, as the team used it earlier in the mission to clear dust from the panels. The idea, which came up when the team first discovered that dust was causing InSight to lose performance, was to pick up Martian soil and dump it onto the panels. Windy conditions then blew the ground away, taking some of the dust with it. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked. At least for a while.
The only way InSight can be saved now is for stronger winds – in the form of a Martian hurricane – to sweep the dust off the solar panels.
“We were hoping for a dedusting [event] as we’ve seen several times with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said mission member Bruce Banerdt. “It’s still possible, but the energy is low enough that we’re focused on making the most of the science we can still gather.”
NASA said if a quarter of the InSight panels were cleared of dust, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per Martian day, enough to fuel more science work.
For now, the lander’s energy is prioritized for its seismometer, which operates at night when winds are weak, giving it the best chance of detecting marsquakes.
As of today, the team expects the seismometer to stop working for the next few months, leaving InSight with only enough power to take occasional photos and communicate with Earth before finally going silent in December.
The loss of InSight will leave NASA with three science missions on the surface of Mars: the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, and the Ingenuity rotorcraft.
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