NASA’s InSight Dust-Choked Lander Likely Won’t Make It To Year’s End

NASA’s InSight Dust-Choked Lander Likely Won’t Make It To Year’s End

NASA announced in May than its InSight Mars lander, a spacecraft that has spent nearly four years investigating Mars geology and seismic activity – would likely be cease scientific operations in mid-summer and shut down all operations by the end of the year, due to low power levels. Now the agency plans to expand Knowledge scientific efforts until the end of August and maybe even early September, hoping to pick up a few last Mars tremors before the lander burns out.

There is a trade-off, however. By pushing the lander’s science program, its solar batteries will discharge sooner. That means InSight’s death knell will come sooner than the end of the year, as NASA previously estimated.

“InSight is not done teaching us about Mars yet,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, said in a release from the agency. “We are going to get all the scientific information possible before the lander completes its operations.”

Since InSight landed on Mars in November 2018, the lander has detected more than 1,300 Mars tremors that have allowed scientists to to structure of the martian interior. Some InSight operations have been less successful, especially his molean instrument that was supposed to dig 10 feet into the Martian surface but only managed to do so a few centimeters, due to the unexpected consistency of the ground.

InSight has been dying for a long time. When the lander arrived on Mars, its two 7– foot-wide solar panels soaked up as much sunlight as they could; the lander could operate for about 5,000 watt hours per martian day, or sol.

Since then, the dust of the Martian landscape has settled on the panels, and now InSight can’t squeeze nearly as much power from sunlight. At a press conference in May, InSight team members said the lander could only handle 500 watt-hours per ground.

The InSight seismometer is the only instrument still operational on the lander. To maximize the runtime of the seismometer, the the team turns off the lander’s failure protection system—the system that automatically puts InSight into safe mode in situations like dust storms, cold fronts or when the lander has low power.

InSight will therefore be exposed to threats in its final months, but the NASA team is betting that the data collected by the lander during this time is worth the risk.

“The goal is to get science to the point where InSight can’t work at all, rather than conserve power and run the lander without any science benefit,” said Chuck Scott, InSight Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Release.

The InSight team has tried unconventional means dust off the solar panels – even dropping more dirt on them – but the lander is now running on borrowed time. For future solar-powered Martian machines, possibly a dust collection mechanism could be useful to keep clean solar panels, but that’s a whole other engineering challenge.

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