NASA’s Marsquake-seeking lander is extracting as much science as possible amid dwindling power supplies, but it likely only has a few months left on its mission.
the InSight Martian Lander is battling a long-term buildup of dust on its solar panels and is now only a tenth of its available landing power of 5,000 watt-hours, officials said at a press conference Tuesday (May 17).
“When we landed it was about an hour – about 40 minutes – where you can run [the equivalent of] an electric oven,” Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight Deputy Project Manager at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters. Now, added Garcia, “we could probably make it last about 10 minutes tops.”
But exactly when InSight closes its instruments on March for good is a big unknown because it depends on weather, spacecraft performance and other hard-to-quantify factors, JPL lead investigator Bruce Banerdt told reporters.
“It exceeded our expectations at about every turn on Mars, so it may last longer than that,” Banerdt said.
InSight landed on the Red Planet in November 2018 and made unprecedented measurements of seismic activity on Mars, following less than successful attempts by spacecraft such as Viking. Just a few weeks ago, InSight the largest earthquake ever observed on Mars has been reported among 1,300 others it has detected since arriving in Elysium Planitia.
The mission allowed scientists to precisely place limits on crustal thickness and core size, Banerdt said, which he called the mission’s crowning glory.
“We just had a very blurry picture of what was going on inside Mars. [before]and I think the real contribution of InSight is that we can now draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior,” he said.
But like many other solar-powered craft on Mars, InSight’s limiting factor was dust smothering sunlight, which is the mission’s primary power source. NASA has been warning for months that the InSight Mars lander likely to fail by mid-year 2022, even after granting InSight an extension for its continued scientific value.
Due to weight and power issues, the lander did not carry any additional system for cleaning dust, such as motors or brushes. Engineers managed to remove a piece of a solar panel in 2021 after pour sand on the lander and let the wind blow on the panel to remove some dust. But in the absence of a large gust of wind from a nearby dust devil, InSight found itself struggling with an accumulation of sand.
To best preserve energy, the mission will be tasked this spring with putting its arm in a “retreat pose”, in an inverted-V position to take views of the seismometer once it is no longer commanded to move from Earth. . The seismometer will operate at least intermittently for some time, but it and other instruments should be shut down at the end of the summer.
Banerdt stressed, however, that the science team will remain busy for at least another six months on immediate mission tasks, even after InSight completes its data collection. “We get final data products, like our final Mars earthquake catalog and our final Mars models,” he said.
The team will upload its final slices of data to a publicly available archives which strives to have scientific information available within three months of collection, Banerdt said. This information will remain available essentially forever, adding to the catalog of retired space mission data that could be revisited for future investigations.
The archive will not only be useful for future missions to Mars, but also for others who may use seismic surveys or assess the interior of rocky worlds. Banerdt, who said he worked to get a seismometer on the Red Planet for most of his career, suggested that Venus might be a next natural location (assuming said instrument could survive the intense heat).
Officials also cited the dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan as a beneficiary of InSight research, as the landing craft will carry a seismometer. This hunt for life mission should be launched in 2027, if all goes as planned.
InSight exceeded its main mission objectives despite the problems with its “mole” heat-seeking probewho was supposed to dig deep into the regolith to observe any heat escaping from the Martian interior.
In January 2021, NASA abandoned many valiant attempts to operate the mole built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), amid an expansion review board warning that the mission was already underpowered. The problem came about because InSight encountered much sandier soil than found on the Red Planet before, which the Mole was not designed to tackle (despite all efforts).
The mole ultimately got just a few centimeters below the surface, rather than the 10 feet (3 meters) its design called for, but Banerdt said the instrument was still seen as complementary (and not entirely essential) to its mandate. ‘Insight to assess Martian inner activity.
“Seismology tells us what are the constituent elements of the planet today, and the [mole] was going to tell us something about his dynamic,” Banerdt said. What was lost, he said, was being able to constrain temperatures in the core, although some suggestions may have come from seismology.
Banerdt acknowledged that his upcoming birthday, which coincides with InSight’s assignment selection date on August 20, 2012, can be quite different in 2022 if the lander goes quiet by then. “This mission is really near and dear to my heart,” he said.
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