NASA officials announced at a press conference today that the InSight lander on Mars will likely stop operating at the end of 2022, after three years of scientific work on the Red Planet’s surface.
InSight arrived on Mars in November 2018, and during its time on the Martian surface, it collected remarkable data on the structure of the planet and the seismic events emanating from its interior. More recently, the lander detected its largest earthquake to date and the largest earthquake ever detected on another world: a magnitude 5 event. (Magnitude 5.0 earthquakes are often felt on Earth and tend to cause minor damage; the previous largest earthquake on Mars was nearly 10 times smaller than this.)
But now the lander is plagued by dust that has settled on its solar panels, hampering its ability to absorb light and generate electricity. The InSight team proposed a McGuyver-esque way to shake off some of that dust: by picking up some Martian soil and dropping it on the dust, they were able to marginally clean the panels. This maneuver has been successfully performed six times, according to Kathya Zamora Garcia, deputy project manager for InSight.
But the reality of InSight’s situation is that it is in a hostile environment; nothing lasts forever, and the lander looks set to wrap up science operations this summer and end all operations by the end of the year, according to InSight team estimates.
“One of InSight’s legacies is that it really proves the technique of seismology for planetary science,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, said at the press conference. “We were able to map the interior of Mars for the first time in history.”
In his tenure, the lander has detected March 1313earthquakes to date. When he started his science, InSight was able to operate for around 5,000 watt-hours per ground (Martian day); now, overwhelmed by Martian dust, the lander can only handle 500 watt-hours per ground. The reduction is equivalent to going from an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes a day on Earth to only about 10 minutes a day, Zamora Garcia said.
Seismic measurements are crucial for understanding the structure and evolution of rocky worlds like Earth, Mars and Venus. On Earth, many seismic events are caused by plate tectonics, but others are caused by sources in the crust or convection in the mantle, the melting region below the crust. Mars has no plate tectonics, so the events are strictly last-last, although seismometers can also pick up the motions of impact events.
InSight was tasked (and delivered) to give humanity the best insight into the geological and seismological systems of Mars. InSight revealed the thickness and composition of the Martian crust, as well as details of the planet’s mantle and core. But the lander also had its difficulties. dust storms before forced the lander into safe mode, and InSight’s “mole,” a thermal probe meant to dig into the Martian surface, got stuck in the vexing consistency of Martian soil. the Mole was discontinued in January 2021.
Science operations could end as early as mid-July, Zamora Garcia said, but InSight’s fate ultimately comes down to the favor (or anger) of the Martian climate. “It exceeded our expectations at just about every turn on Mars,” Banerdt said. “It may actually last longer than that.”
An errant dust storm could doom the lander even sooner, or a chance dust devil could blow accumulated dust off the lander’s solar panels, providing a power boost. “We’re working to get as much as we can, but we’ll just have to see what Mars and InSight give us,” Banerdt said.
Barring Martian miracles, the tedious InSight lander is out of breath. For each of its struggles and failures, the lander has produced a wealth of data about the buried secrets of rocky worlds beyond our own. So thank you, InSight, for all your incredible perseverance.
More: NASA’s InSight captured a lonely Martian sunrise