This is the last we will see a selfie of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars. And judging by the amount of dust covering the lander’s solar panels, it’s easy to see why. (NASA, JPL-Caltech)
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PASADENA, Calif. — This is the last we’ll see a selfie of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars. And judging by the amount of dust covering the lander’s solar panels, it’s easy to see why.
The stationary spacecraft captured the image on April 24 using its robotic arm, which will soon be placed in a final resting position called a “retreat pose” later this month. To take a selfie, the arm must move several times, and it will no longer be possible.
“Before I lost more solar power, I took some time to soak in my surroundings and take my last selfie before resting my arm and camera permanently in the stowed position,” the InSight account. tweeted tuesday.
Due to a decrease in electrical power, the mission will cease science operations by the end of the summer. It revealed the mysterious interior of Mars since its landing in November 2018.
InSight’s solar arrays are increasingly covered in Martian red dust, despite the mission team’s creative efforts on Earth. This buildup will only get worse as Mars now enters winter, when more dust is thrown into the atmosphere.
These floating particles reduce the sunlight available to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently working on an extended mission that was supposed to last until December. The mission achieved its primary goals after its first two years on Mars.
The final selfie shows the lander covered in much more dust than previous selfies in December 2018 and April 2019.
The lander went into safe mode on May 7 when its energy levels plummeted, causing it to cease all but essential functions. The team predicts this could happen more frequently in the future as dust levels increase.
The stationary lander is only able to harvest about a tenth of the available electrical power after it landed on Mars in November 2018. When InSight first landed, it could produce about 5,000 watt-hours every day on Mars , the equivalent of what it takes to power an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes.
Now the lander produces 500 watt hours a day, enough to power an electric furnace for just 10 minutes. If 25% of the solar panels were cleaned, InSight would experience a sufficient power boost to continue operating. The spacecraft witnessed numerous dust devils or whirlpools, but none came close enough to clear the solar panels.
“We were hoping for a dust cleanup like we’ve seen repeatedly on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “It’s still possible, but the energy is low enough that our goal is to make the most of the science we can still collect.”
By the end of the summer, the team will shut down the seismometer, end science operations, and monitor remaining power levels on the lander. At the end of the year, the InSight mission will end.
The InSight team, however, will still listen for any possible communication from the spacecraft and determine if it could ever function again.
The lander’s highly sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for the Interior Structure, detected more than 1,300 marsquakes hundreds and thousands of miles away. Insight detected the largest to date, a magnitude 5, on May 4.
“Even though we’re nearing the end of our mission, Mars still offers us some really amazing things to see,” Banerdt said.
The data collected by InSight so far has revealed new details about the little-known Martian core, inner layers and crust. It also recorded weather data and analyzed remnants of the magnetic field that once existed on Mars.
The constant flow of data from InSight to scientists on Earth will stop when the solar cells can no longer generate enough power. But researchers will study the detections made by InSight for decades to come to learn as much as possible about our enigmatic planetary neighbor.
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