The end of the line is approaching for NASA’s Mars InSight lander

This December 6, 2018 image made available by NASA shows the InSight lander. The scene was assembled from 11 photos taken using his robotic arm. The spacecraft is losing power due to all the dust that has accumulated on its solar panels. NASA said Tuesday, May 17, 2022, that it will continue to use the spacecraft’s seismometer to detect Marchquakes until its power runs out. Officials expect operations to cease in July, nearly four years after InSight arrived on Mars. Credit: NASA via AP, File

After about four years probing the interior of Mars, NASA’s InSight lander will likely retire this summer as dust accumulated on its solar panels saps its power.

The lander will, however, leave behind a legacy of data that will be used by scientists around the world for years to come, helping to improve our understanding of planet formation, NASA said, while announcing Tuesday the imminent end of InSight science operations.

Equipped with an ultra-sensitive seismometer, InSight recorded more than 1,300 “marsquakes”, including a magnitude 5 earthquake on May 4, the largest to date.

But around July, the seismometer will be turned off.

Lander energy level will then be checked approximately once a day, and some photos may still be taken. Then by the end of 2022, the mission will be completely stopped.

The cause: the accumulation for months of Martian dust on the two solar panels of the lander, each measuring about 2.2 meters wide.

InSight, which was already working with only a tenth of the energy it had at the start, will soon see its batteries exhausted.

The rate at which the dust accumulated more or less matched what had been estimated by NASA.

The lander came back to life about a year ago, when its robotic arm was used again and unscheduled to remove dust from the solar panels, thus extending the mission.

The maneuver – employed successfully six times – saw the arm itself use the dust to clean the panels, as it scooped up a few. martian soil and gently deposited on the robot so that the dirt is blown on the solar panelsclearing parts of their surface.

Adding something to the lander specifically to clean the panels was scrapped due to cost, Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained at a press conference Tuesday.

Such a mechanism would leave “less to put into scientific instruments”, he said.


InSight, one of the four missions currently on the red planet, with the American rovers Perseverance and Curiosity, and the Chinese Zhurong, arrived on Mars in November 2018.

His seismometer, made in France, has since paved the way for great advances.

“The inside was kind of a giant question mark,” said Banerdt, who worked on the InSight mission for more than a decade.

But thanks to InSight, “we were able to map the interior of Mars for the very first time in history”.

The seismic waves, which vary according to the materials they pass through, offer an image of the interior of the planet.

For example, scientists were able to confirm that the core of Mars is liquid and determine the thickness of the Martian crust, which is less dense than previously thought and probably consists of three layers.

The magnitude 5 quake in early May was much larger than any previously recorded and close to what scientists thought was the maximum on Mars, although it was not considered a huge tremor on Earth.

“This earthquake is really going to be a treasure scientific information when we put our teeth into it,” Banerdt said.

Earthquakes are notably caused by plate tectonics, he explained. But, they can also be triggered when the Earth’s crust moves due to temperature anomalies caused by its mantle.

It is this type of vibration that scientists think they are dealing with on Mars.

However, not all of InSight’s science operations have gone smoothly, such as when its thermal probe struggled to be successfully buried below the surface to take the temperature of the planet due to the composition of the soil where the robot has landed.

Either way, in light of the seismometer’s success, NASA is considering using the technique elsewhere in the future, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“We would really like to set up a full network on the moon to really understand what’s going on there.”

NASA’s InSight records monster earthquake on Mars

© 2022 AFP

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