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spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

NASA’s InSight Continues To Hunt For Quakes, But Its Death Is Now Imminent

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Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockMay 19 2022, 14:43 UTC
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InSight captured this image of one of its dust-covered solar panels on April 24, 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of InSight's dust covered solar panel as seen on April 24, 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the three and a half years that NASA’s InSight has been on Mars, the lander has delivered incredible observations that have literally changed the way we understand the interior of the Red Planet. InSight also detected the first-ever "marsquake", measuring over 1,300 quakes since, including the strongest yet just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, InSight is slowly dying, and NASA thinks it won't make it past the end of the year. 

The mission has been extended until December but it is now clear that most of the instruments will not be turned on again after the end of this month and science operations are expected to end with Earth’s northern summer.

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"[T]he team expects that around December, power will be low enough that one day InSight will simply stop responding," NASA said in a JPL blog

The culprit of InSight's untimely demise is dust. Since landing on Mars, the solar panel has been accumulating dust, reducing the extraordinary machine's power levels. The mission team came up with a clever way to clean some of the dust off, by pouring sand from the lander’s robotic arm next to the solar panels to create a little breeze that would blow away the dust. This worked for a while but in the long run, Mars is a harsh and unforgiving environment.

The solar panels are now producing just 10 percent of what they used to originally and as Elysium Planitia, where InSight is, enters a new season the team forecasts more dust in the air and reduced sunlight, meaning the lander's doom is pretty much sealed. A serendipitous dust devil – a type of whirlwind that can form on Mars – could lend a helping hand but the team is not banking on that.

“We’ve been hoping for a dust cleaning like we saw happen several times to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the mission, said. “That’s still possible, but energy is low enough that our focus is making the most of the science we can still collect.”

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The team will put the lander's robotic arm into a resting position, called the retirement pose, for the last time this month. 

The last thing that will be switched off is the mission seismometer, which will continue to collect data at selected times to maximize the chances of observations with little noise. Weather and magnetic data will no longer be collected come June.

The team expects that the lander will continue to send the occasional image and signal after this summer until one day it will just stop. Then, it will be the end of a spectacular mission that will inform many future missions to come. 

“InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “We can apply what we’ve learned about Mars’ inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”


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