Dusty solar panels and darker skies are expected to end the lander’s mission to Mars later this year.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander is gradually losing power and is expected to end science operations later this summer. By December, the InSight team expects the lander to have become inoperative, concluding a mission that has so far detected more than 1,300 marsquakes – the most recently a magnitude 5 occurrence on May 4 – and located earthquake-prone regions of the Red Planet.
Information gathered from these earthquakes has allowed scientists to measure the depth and composition of Mars’ crust, mantle and core. Additionally, InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) recorded invaluable meteorological data and studied remnants of Mars’ ancient magnetic field.
“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 the internal structure of Mars to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”
InSight landed on Mars on November 26, 2018. Fitted with a pair of solar arrays each about 2.2 meters wide, it was designed to achieve the mission’s primary science objectives during its first year on Mars ( nearly two Earth years). Having reached them, the spacecraft is now on an extended mission, and its solar panels are producing less power as they continue to accumulate dust.
Due to reduced power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm into its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the final time later this month. Originally intended to deploy the lander’s seismometer and thermal probe, the arm played an unexpected role in the mission: in addition to using it to help bury the thermal probe after sticky Martian soil presented challenges to the probe, the team used the arm in an innovative way to dust off solar panels. As a result, the seismometer was able to operate more often than it otherwise would have, leading to new discoveries.
When InSight landed, the solar panels were producing around 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day, or ground – enough to power an electric furnace for an hour and 40 minutes. Today they produce around 500 watt hours per floor, enough to power the same electric furnace for just 10 minutes.
Additionally, seasonal changes begin at Elysium Planitia, InSight’s location on Mars. Over the next few months, there will be more dust in the air, which will reduce sunlight and lander energy. While past efforts removed some dust, the mission would need a more powerful dust clearing event, such as a “dust devil” (a passing whirlpool), to reverse the current trend.
“We were hoping for a dust cleanup like we’ve seen on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers multiple times,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is leading the mission. . “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.”
If only 25% of InSight’s panels were swept by the wind, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per ground, enough to continue collecting scientific data. However, at the current rate of decreasing power, InSight’s non-seismic instruments will rarely be activated after the end of May.
Power is prioritized for the lander’s seismometer, which will operate at certain times of the day, such as at night, when winds are low and earthquakes are easier for the seismometer to “hear”. The seismometer itself should be extinguished by the end of the summer, concluding the scientific phase of the mission.
At this point, the lander will still have enough power to operate, take occasional photos, and communicate with Earth. But the team expects that around December the power will be low enough that one day InSight will simply stop responding.
Learn more about the mission
JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, operated by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruiser stage and lander, and is supporting spacecraft operations for the mission.
Several European partners, including the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), support the InSight mission. CNES supplied the SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) instrument to NASA, whose principal researcher is IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Important contributions to SEIS have come from the IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and the University of Oxford in the UK; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Center for Space Research (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. The Spanish Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) provided the temperature and wind sensors.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.