Anyone considering traveling to Mars should probably consider the dust. Batches of dust.
Earlier this month, NASA announced it would soon cease science operations on its Mars InSight lander due to dwindling power levels from the vehicle’s dust-covered solar panels. The spacecraft, which landed on the Red Planet in November 2018 to study seismic activity, simply cannot produce enough power to operate normally.
According to NASA scientists, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes, including a relatively strong magnitude 5 quake on May 4. It was the largest March tremor detected to date, and at the upper limit of what scientists had hoped to observe. This seismic activity has allowed scientists to discover details about the internal structure of the red planet.
But scientists say they expect InSight to become completely unusable by December this year, so they plan to wrap up science operations of the vehicle this summer. Indeed, InSight’s solar panels, which produced 5,000 watt-hours of electricity each day after landing, can now only generate around 500 watt-hours. And the amount of daily electricity continues to decline due to dust buildup on its solar panels over the past three and a half years.
For some NASA missions to Mars, passing vortices helped clear dust from a spacecraft’s solar panels, as happened with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. But unfortunately, this did not happen for the seismic lander.
The first step toward shutting down InSight is placing the spacecraft’s robotic arm in a stowed position. This arm was first used to deploy InSight’s seismometer, then for several tasks, including dusting InSight’s solar panels. But now there just isn’t enough power to move it steadily, and scientists want to save what’s left to run the seismometer a bit longer.
Before it was put away, however, the robotic arm took one last selfie of InSight, and the spectacular result shows just how dusty the spacecraft has become. The entirety of InSight is now covered in cold, dry, reddish dust.
The death of spaceships on distant worlds is always melancholy. Humanity sends these metal machines into hostile environments, where they struggle to survive and provide us with new insights into the unknown. Eventually they succumb to cold or radiation or dust, and we can no longer communicate with them.
But InSight was a Well spacecraft, surviving its two-year design life and yielding a boon of science, including the discovery that the Martian core is much smaller than previously thought.