Despite its exhausting power, NASA’s InSight Mars lander is determined to extract as much science as possible until the very last moment

Its solar panels are covered in dust and the batteries are running out of juice, but NASA’s InSight Mars lander continues to collect more scientific data about the Red Planet until its very last beep. To conserve power, InSight was to shut down its seismometer – its last operational scientific instrument – by the end of June, hoping to survive on its remaining power until December. The seismometer has been the key instrument designed to measure Marsquakes, which it has recorded since landing on Mars in 2018, and recently recorded a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, the largest to date.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander took this last selfie on April 24, 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But instead of shutting down this key instrument, the team now plans to program the lander so the seismometer can run longer, possibly until late August or early September. This will drain the lander’s batteries sooner and also cause the spacecraft to black out at that time, but it could allow the seismometer to detect further marsquakes.

“InSight is not done telling us about Mars yet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington. “We are going to get all the scientific information possible before the lander completes its operations.”

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Launched from Vandenburg AFB on May 5, 2018, NASA’s InSight lander touched down in Elysium Planitia, Mars on November 26, 2018, and it’s safe to say its time on Mars was productive. His scientific goals included studying the formation and evolution of rocky planets, as well as determining the tectonic activity of Mars today. During its journey, InSight successfully detected the first earthquake on another planet; collected new information about the three main layers of Mars: the crust, the mantle and the core; detected traces of an ancient “frozen” magnetic field in crustal rocks; and studied dust devils and other atmospheric and meteorological data.

Unfortunately, Mars is a dusty place, and that proved to be a problem for the lander. Since InSight is powered by solar energy, any obstruction of the solar panels will undoubtedly reduce the sunlight it receives to keep going. While past rovers such as Opportunity have been blessed with dust devils cleaning up their own solar panels, allowing it to stay powered for years past its originally scheduled 90-day mission, InSight has not received that same gift. Now the lander is covered in far more dust than it was in its first selfie, taken in December 2018, shortly after landing – or in its second selfie, made up of images taken in March and April 2019.

Taken on December 6, 2018 (sol 10), this was NASA InSight’s first full-length selfie on Mars. It displays the solar panels and the lander deck. Above deck are her scientific instruments, weather sensor poles and UHF antenna. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
This was NASA InSight’s second full selfie on Mars. Since taking its first selfie, the lander has removed its thermal probe and seismometer from its deck, placing them on the Martian surface; a thin layer of dust now covered the spaceship as well. This selfie is a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11 — the 106th and 133rd Martian days, or sols, of the mission — by InSight’s Instrument Deployment Camera, located on its robotic arm. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

All instruments except the seismometer have already been turned off. Like other Mars spacecraft, InSight has a failure protection system that automatically enters “safe mode” in threatening situations and shuts down all but the most essential functions, allowing engineers to assess the situation. . Low power and temperatures that exceed predetermined limits can both trigger safe mode.

To allow the seismometer to continue operating for as long as possible, the mission team disables InSight’s fault protection system. While this allows the instrument to operate longer, it leaves the lander unprotected against sudden and unexpected events that ground controllers would not have time to respond to.

“The goal is to get science to the point where InSight can’t work at all, rather than conserve power and run the lander without any science benefit,” said Chuck Scott, InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Although there are currently no proposals for future missions like InSight’s, NASA is currently working to return samples from Mars to Earth in the 2030s. This sample return mission is the next step after that NASA’s Perseverance Rover successfully collected several core samples from the Martian surface and left them directly on the surface where they will hopefully be retrieved and returned to Earth in years to come.

What new discoveries will we make on Mars in the years to come? Only time will tell, and that’s why we do science!

As always, keep doing science and keep looking up!

Sources: EarthSky, NASA (1), Space.com, NASA (2)

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