The end is near for NASA’s earthquake chaser.
So much dust is choking the solar power supply to NASA’s InSight lander that the Mars mission, which is operating well past its expiration date, is expected to shut down very soon.
“The spacecraft’s power output continues to decline as the windblown dust on its solar panels thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue as long as possible with remaining power.” , NASA officials wrote in an update. (opens in a new tab) Tuesday (November 1). “The end should come in the next few weeks.”
Related: NASA’s InSight Mars lander spotted from orbit covered in dust
InSight landed in November 2018, on a mission to help scientists map the interior of Mars in unprecedented detail. The lander succeeded in this objective, detecting more than 1,300 illuminating marsquakes.
“Observing how the seismic waves from these earthquakes change as they travel across the planet provides invaluable insight into the interior of Mars, but also provides insight into how all rocky worlds, including Earth and its moon, are forming,” NASA officials wrote in the update. (InSight was supposed to supplement its Marchquake data with measurements from a burrowing heat probe, but the latter instrument failed to penetrate deep enough underground to do its job.)
InSight is well past its primary mission life of two Earth years. But time is running out, thanks to the dust that regularly rains on his solar panels. The dust buildup got so bad this summer that the mission team had to shut down all of InSight’s other instruments to keep its suite of seismometers running.
“We were at less than 20% of original production capacity,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in Tuesday’s update. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments 24 hours a day.”
Things got worse after a recent dust storm dumped even more squalls on the already ruddy InSight. The mission team turned off the lander’s seismometer to save power during the storm. It’s back now, but the power will probably run out in a few weeks.
InSight’s close-knit team of around 30 people are busy preparing for the end of the mission, including archiving collected data for future scientific studies and packaging a twin engineering model. called “ForeSight”, which had been used (in part) to solve problems with the burrowing heat probe. (These efforts were unsuccessful.)
“We’ll pack it carefully,” Banerdt said of ForeSight, which will be stored, potentially for future missions. “It’s been a great tool, a great companion for us on this whole mission.”
There is no bailout for InSight, which was launched without solar panel cleanup measures due to weight and power issues. Occasionally, Mars missions are lucky with a gust of wind blowing dust away, but enough wind is unlikely to occur to significantly extend InSight’s lifespan at this point, officials said. Nasa.
Related: NASA’s Mars InSight lander takes dusty ‘final selfie’ as power dims
The agency won’t declare the mission complete until InSight misses two records with the spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet relaying its information back to Earth, like NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Even after that, NASA’s Deep Space Network of radio dishes will continue to listen in case the lander calls home.
The team’s goal in the coming weeks will be to extract as much science as possible from Insight, just as they have been doing for the past few months.
“We will continue to do scientific measurements as long as we can,” Banerdt said. “We are at the mercy of Mars. The weather on Mars is not rain and snow. The weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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