NASA’s InSight lander arrived on the surface of Mars in late 2018, designed to explore the interior of the red planet for the first time. While some aspects of the mission have not gone to plan, the lander has lasted longer in the harsh conditions than expected. However, nothing can last forever, and NASA now says the mission is coming to an end later this year. It will begin shutting off InSight’s instruments to save power in just a few weeks.
NASA initially hoped to get two years of operation out of InSight, a mark that it long since passed. There’s nothing wrong with the lander, but unlike the seemingly eternal Curiosity rover, InSight is stationary and relies on two 7-foot solar panels for power. Mars’ atmosphere is dusty, and a layer of particulates has accumulated on the panels (see above). With power reserves falling, InSight will soon go offline forever.
InSight arrived on Mars on November 26, 2018, and in the following weeks, it made history by deploying the first seismic sensor on another planet. This instrument allowed scientists to measure marsquakes, most of which were little more than a low rumble compared to quakes on Earth. Still, the shaking allowed NASA to characterize the interior of the planet like never before. At this point, InSight’s solar panels were able to generate 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day, but now the figure has dropped to just ten percent of that.
NASA knew this day was coming, but it forestalled the end last year when it used scoops full of sand to knock some of the fine dust off the panels. However, Mars is now heading into the long winter season, during which sunlight will be fainter, lowering the solar panels’ performance even more. There is some hope that wind could clear the solar panels of dust, which happened in the past with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. If 25 percent of the panels were cleared of dust, the lander could continue doing science, but at the current rate of decline, NASA plans to shut off InSight’s non-seismic instruments at the end of May.
With some adjustments, InSight should still be able to operate in a limited fashion through the end of 2022. NASA will flip on the seismometer at night when winds are lower and it’s easier for the instrument to detect marsquakes, but that too will become untenable by later this summer. It will still be able to wake up to occasionally beam back weather data and images, but even that will no longer be possible by December. Around then, the team expects InSight will go to sleep and never wake up again, but the data it acquired will be of interest for years to come.
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