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NASA’s InSight mission draws to a close – look back at the Mars lander’s many accomplishments

NASA’s InSight mission draws to a close – look back at the Mars lander’s many accomplishments

NASA's InSight mission draws to a close - look back at the Mars lander's many accomplishments

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Another robot from Mars settles in for a long, long sleep.

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With dust clumping its solar panels, InSight lost the ability to recharge for months – in the spring it was operating at only a tenth of its landing power. Now the thick layers of dust could have doomed InSight for good. NASA announced Dec. 19 that its InSight lander failed to respond to communications from Earth, and “it is speculated that InSight may have reached the end of its operations.”

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, landed on Mars on November 26, 2018. Its mission was to study the interior structure and composition of Mars over a period of 709 Martian sols, or 728 days terrestrial, mainly by seismographic recordings. Like many other NASA Mars robots, the lander has far exceeded its planned mission duration – as of December 20, 1,445 sols (local Martian days) have passed.

InSight’s disappearance by dust was not unexpected. For reasons of space and weight, the lander was not equipped with dust removal instruments, relying on the temperamental Martian wind to clean its solar panels.

InSight took this photograph of a Martian sunset on April 25, 2019.

In an April 22 press release announcing the extension of eight planetary science missions, including InSight, NASA wrote of the Mars lander: “The extended mission will continue InSight’s seismic and weather monitoring if the spacecraft remains in good condition. However, due to dust accumulation on its solar panels, InSight’s power generation is low and the mission is unlikely to continue operations for the duration of its current extended mission unless its solar panels are cleaned by a “dust devil” passing on Mars. atmosphere.”

Less than a month after extending InSight’s mission, NASA announced the expected timeline for the lander to slow down and the eventual end of the mission: December 2022, a very accurate prediction. “InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in the press release. “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.”

Because power levels were so low this summer, the InSight team turned off all science instruments except its seismometer, which collected data until at least October 22.

NASA intends to attempt to recontact InSight, but if the lander misses two consecutive communications, the team will officially declare the mission terminated. “After that, NASA’s Deep Space Network will be listening for a while, just in case,” NASA wrote in a November 1 statement.

Before we say our final goodbyes to the lander – you can even send a virtual postcard to InSight and its team to celebrate their success – we go back over the highlights of the mission.

Cubesats

When InSight launched atop an Atlas V rocket on May 5, 2018, there were two other robots on board: CubeSats dubbed “WALL-E” and “EVE.” Part of the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission, these briefcase-sized satellites demonstrated the ability of CubeSats to survive in deep space. They successfully relayed data from InSight as it landed on Mars to Earth, then broke off contact shortly thereafter.

InSight’s seismometer sits under a wind and heat shield.

The sound of Mars

Shortly after landing, InSight collected what its researchers called an “unplanned treat”: using the lander as a giant microphone to listen to sound from the Martian surface. It’s very calm (as expected in a thin atmosphere) and mostly just windy (also as expected) but it was exciting just to hear the otherworldly surface. Since then, we’ve also heard recordings made by the Ingenuity helicopter’s Perseverance rover. You can listen to the wind captured by InSight below:


Marsquakes

On April 6, 2019, InSight made the first-ever recording of an earthquake – the Martian version of an earthquake – using its Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument. Since then, it has measured more than 1,300 Marchquakes, including a magnitude 5 quake on May 4, 2022, which is the largest on record. By studying the Mars Quake, researchers established the composition of Mars’ interior to include 12 to 23 miles (20 to 37 kilometers) of crust, a 969-mile (1,560 kilometer) thick mantle, and a core molten with a radius of 1,137 miles (1,830 kilometers). Useful if we ever plan to do mining there.

Magnetic “ghosts”

InSight carried the first magnetometer to Mars, using it to study rocks on the surface and several kilometers below. In them he discovered traces of the planet’s old magnetic field, which no longer exists. These rocks demonstrated powerful magnetism about 10 times stronger than what scientists expected based on previous satellite data.

Martian Weather

Insight also served as a small Martian weather station, recording all sorts of atmospheric phenomena. It took the first audio recording of the Martian wind on Dec. 1, 2018, and it recorded numerous pressure drops caused by passing “dust devils,” or whirlpools. The public could even read InSight’s daily weather reports, which were published online until October 25, 2020.

InSight’s latest selfie shows a thick layer of dust on its solar panels.

fight to the end

Even though InSight was operating at extremely low power levels due to dust buildup on its solar panels, the lander continued to monitor Mars’ seismic activity throughout the summer and into the fall. The SEIS instrument was the lander’s last operational instrument, collecting data until at least October 22. As of that date, InSight still had enough power to continue communications with Earth, but now it has gone silent.

“Lander power has been waning for months, as expected, and it is speculated that InSight may have reached the end of its operations,” NASA wrote in an update.

On December 19, a NASA Twitter account for the lander post what could be the last photo of the robot with the following message: “My power is really low, so this may be the last image I can send. Don’t worry about me though: my time here has been both productive and peaceful. If I can keep talking to my mission team, I will – but I’ll be signing here soon. Thanks for staying with me.

After two or three decades of collecting more and more dust, InSight may encounter humans again, as astronauts land on Mars.

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