Due to dwindling electrical power, the mission will cease science operations by the end of the summer, said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Washington. California, at a press conference on Tuesday.
InSight’s solar arrays are increasingly covered in red Martian dust, despite creative efforts by the mission team on Earth. This accumulation will only get worse as Mars now enters winter, when more dust is thrown into the atmosphere.
These floating particles reduce the sunlight needed to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently working on an extended mission that was supposed to last until December. The mission achieved its primary goals after its first two years on Mars.
The lander went into safe mode on May 7 when its energy levels plummeted, causing it to cease all but essential functions. The team anticipates that this could happen more frequently in the future as dust levels increase.
The stationary lander is only able to harvest about a tenth of the available electrical power after it landed on Mars in November 2018. When InSight first landed, it could produce about 5,000 watt-hours every day on Mars , the equivalent of what it takes to power an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes.
Now the lander produces 500 watt hours per day, enough to power an electric furnace for just 10 minutes. If 25% of the solar panels were cleaned, InSight would experience a sufficient power boost to continue. The spacecraft witnessed many dust devils, or whirlpools, but none were close enough to clean the solar panels.
“We were hoping for a dust cleanup like we’ve seen on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers multiple times,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt at JPL. “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.”
The lander’s robotic arm will soon be placed in “retreat pose”.
By the end of the summer, the team will shut down the seismometer, end science operations, and monitor remaining power levels on the lander. At the end of the year, the InSight mission will end.
The InSight team, however, will still listen for any possible communication from the spacecraft and determine if it could ever function again.
“The InSight mission has really just been an amazing mission for us,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said at the press conference. “And it gave us insight into Mars that we couldn’t get from any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet. Interpreting the InSight data has really deepened our understanding of how rocky planets form in the universe. .”
“Even though we are nearing the end of our mission, Mars still offers us some truly amazing things to see,” Banerdt said.
Earthquakes are like the earthquakes we experience on Earth, just a little different as to why they happen on each planet. On Earth, this recent event would be a medium-sized earthquake – but it hits a new record for seismic activity detected by scientists studying Mars.
When we experience earthquakes, it is because the Earth’s tectonic plates are moving, shifting and rubbing against each other. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.
So how do earthquakes happen on Mars? Think of the Martian crust as one giant slab. This crust contains faults and fractures as the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This shrinkage exerts pressure on the Martian crust, stretching and cracking it.
When seismic waves from earthquakes pass through different materials inside Mars, it allows scientists to study the structure of the planet. Analyzing the activity helps them understand the mysterious Martian interior and apply that research to learn how other rocky planets, including our own, form.
With InSight, scientists were able to map the interior of Mars for the first time ever, Banerdt said.
The InSight science team continues to analyze the earthquake to better understand its origin, source and what it could reveal about the Red Planet.
The constant flow of data from InSight to scientists on Earth will stop when the solar cells can no longer generate enough power. But researchers will study the detections made by InSight for decades to come to learn as much as possible about our enigmatic planetary neighbor.