Science

NASA announces the end of its Marsquake-hunting lander

Martian dust is bringing a unique Martian mission to an end.

After tuning in to the Martian underground for three-and-a-half years, NASA’s InSight Mars lander mission is ending.

During a Tuesday teleconference, the InSight team announced that the solar panels of the stationary probe are covered in Martian dust, obstructing its energy source. This means that InSight will begin slowly preparing for its retirement, with science operations reaching their finale by the end of this summer.

This update comes just two weeks after the probe’s highly sensitive seismometer detected the strongest quake ever recorded on another planet.

This seismogram shows a Martian quake detected by NASA’s InSight mission in early May 2022. It is the largest quake ever detected on another planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When InSight first reached Mars in November 2018, “we were at approximately 5,000 watt-hours per sol,” Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight deputy project manager, said in the press conference. “Sol” refers to a Martian day. “Today, we are at about a tenth of that available power, approximately about 500 watt-hours per sol.”

Martian dust is coating the solar panels, which “limits the amount of activities we can do,” she said. “That includes running the seismometer, other instruments, and moving our arm.”

This pesky material also felled NASA’s Opportunity rover in 2019, although that mission lasted significantly longer than InSight. The rover reached Mars with its robotic twin, Spirit, in 2004.

InSight’s decommissioning process will begin over the next few weeks. During Spring 2022, the mission team will continuously run InSight’s seismometer and instruct InSight’s arm to do a few maneuvers, she said. “After that, we’ll be placing the arm in a retirement pose.” The new inverted-V position will allow the camera that’s attached to the arm to be able to take images of the seismometer with a lot less energy.

InSight's Dusty Solar Panel, as seen on April 24, 2022. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Towards the end of Summer 2022, we anticipate our seismometer to be turned off,” she said.

“This is really a supersensitive seismometer, which measures the motion of the ground at an incredibly precise level, down to the scale of a single atom’s radius,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator, said during the official announcement.

“This mission is really near and dear to my heart,” Banerdt added. The team will complete most science observations by the end of the summer, and will officially wrap up by the end of the calendar year, Zamora Garcia said.

The novel mission listened to the Red Planet’s interior since it reached Elysium Planitia, a flat plain a few degrees north of the planet’s equator, in November 2018. InSight’s nearest fellow explorer is NASA’s Curiosity rover, whose landing site is located about 373 miles away, roughly the same length as Florida’s Atlantic coastline. But unlike its wheeled sibling, InSight is stationary.

As it has listened for subsurface rumbles, InSight has allowed scientists to get a deep look at our neighboring rocky world. The waves show evidence of the planet’s internal activity. As seismic waves pass through material beneath the surface, InSight can discern their characteristics. This can help identify some of the geology deep below.

The team had successfully performed a cleanup maneuver six times, which cast Martian dirt into the air, for the wind to carry it over the dusty solar panels and clean them up somewhat. They did this six times, Zamora Garcia said, which allowed the team to catch the large quake earlier this month.

“We captured a lot of lessons learned based on all the challenges that we’ve endured in the Martian environment, and we’re hoping that this will be carried into future missions,” Garcia said.

“It’s really just been an incredible mission for us. It’s given us a glimpse of Mars that we couldn’t get from any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Interpretations of the InSight data have really furthered our understanding of how rocky planets formed throughout the universe.”

Share: