NASA InSight: “Marsquake” mission in its last months

The sophisticated Franco-British seismometric package is a few weeks away from shutdown

Nasa’s InSight probe’s seismometer will continue to listen for Marsquakes even if other mission systems have to shut down due to lower power levels.

The spacecraft has just detected a magnitude 5 quake – the largest event to date in its three years of operation on the Red Planet.

But InSight now captures very little energy thanks to its solar panels.

Dust covers the bays and winter is approaching.

Lower light levels will signal the end of the mission.

Equipment, such as the probe’s robotic arm, is about to be locked into position and turned off.

The all-important seismometer can be put into reduced operation mode for a while, activating only for part of a Martian day, or Sol, and then maybe only every other day. Mission leaders will maintain this for as long as they can, but they know time is not on their side.

“[In July] we anticipate that our seismometer will be turned off, not because we want to turn it off, but unfortunately we don’t have the energy to run it,” said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight’s deputy project manager at Jet Propulsion. Laboratory (JPL) of the American space agency. ) in Pasadena, California.

“At the end of the calendar year, we expect to have to wrap up all of InSight’s operations,” she told reporters.

March' interior

The interior of Mars

The mission, which landed in a flat landscape known as Elysium Planitia in 2018, transformed our understanding of the Red Planet’s interior.

Before its sophisticated set of Franco-British seismometers started sending back data, we had a “really blurry picture” of how the different layers of Mars are organized.

Now, after using vibrations from more than 1,300 Mars quakes to ‘image’ the planet’s deep geology, scientists can be much more certain about the thickness and composition of the crust, mantle and core. of the planet.

“What InSight has done is illuminate the interior of Mars,” said lead researcher Bruce Banerdt, also from JPL.

“While we know a lot about the outside of Mars – we’ve taken images, we’ve taken spectra, we’ve made measurements of the surface of Mars over the past 50 years – InSight was the first mission to shine a light below the surface of Mars and show us what the rest of the planet looks like.”

Dust on the solar wings

Dust on the solar wings

Scientists knew that at some point, Martian dust would settle on InSight’s solar wings to block the sun’s rays.

It is the eternal scourge against which all solar panel missions to the Red Planet must contend.

When InSight landed on November 26, 2018, its transparent, shimmering black-colored wings were producing around 5,000 Watt-hours per ground. Today, colored red by all the dust, they can only produce a tenth of it at around 500 Watt hours per soil.

“We use an electric oven as a marker to make people understand,” Zamora Garcia said. “So when we first landed we had about an hour and forty minutes left to run an electric oven. These days we could probably run it for about 10 minutes max.”

Ingenious efforts were made to try and clean the fenders. InSight has a shovel and by sprinkling dust on the fenders it had the effect of knocking out some of the dust already in place. The trick has been successfully used six times to prolong operations, but it will not save the mission.

Scientists hope InSight can add a few more events to its tally of 1,313 detected Mars tremors. Who knows, they might even see another Magnitude 5 before it all comes to a halt on the mission.

M5 was detected on the Martian morning of May 4. For context, an earthquake of this magnitude here on Earth would certainly be noticed and could even cause minor damage to loosely constructed buildings.

Mission team members are still analyzing the data, but they believe the Mars quake happened near, but not exactly in, a region of the planet called Cerberus Fossae.

Pits of Cerberus

Cerberus Fossae rocks have many faults, making the area a major source of earthquakes

Cerberus Fossae, which lies about 1,500 km east of InSight’s location, was the source of all of the largest tremors observed by the probe.

The terrain there is heavily faulted due to past volcanic activity on Mars. Two huge parallel cracks cross the landscape for 1,000 km.

The vast majority of earthquakes on Mars probably originate from thermal anomalies in the crust. As the planet cools and shrinks, its rocks will break apart along lines of weakness, releasing the seismic waves that InSight’s seismometer was designed to pick up.

“InSight was an amazing mission for us, and it gave us a glimpse of Mars that we couldn’t get from any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet,” said Lori Glaze, science division director. NASA planetary.

“Understanding Mars and studying the interior structure of Mars answers key questions about the early formation of rocky planets in our inner solar system, including Mercury, Venus, Earth, Earth’s Moon, and Mars, while helping us to understand the rocky planets. [planets beyond our Solar System].”

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