After providing unprecedented measurements of seismic activity on Mars and even gorgeous images (like a sunrise), the InSight spacecraft is about to be retired. This is revealed by NASA scientists responsible for carrying out the mission, which has been exploring the Red Planet since November 2018.
Recently, the probe detected the largest earthquake ever recorded not only on the surface of Mars but anywhere else outside Earth: a magnitude 5 earthquake. By earthly standards, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Here, tremors of this intensity occur half a million times a year and rarely cause more serious damage than throwing things off shelves or smashing windowpanes.
However, such photos and finds will soon go down in history. That’s because the InSight spacecraft can no longer support the accumulation of dust that has formed on its solar panels, gradually losing its ability to capture energy.
According to information provided by the US space agency during a press conference on Wednesday (17), the unit operates at less than one-tenth of its available energy of 5,000 watts per day on Mars (which is called the Sun and equals about 24 hours and 39 minutes).
“When we landed, the distance was anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, which is equivalent to the consumption of a conventional electric oven,” said Kathia Zamora Garcia, deputy director of the InSight project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Now InSight can produce no more than 500 watt-hours, which allows us to operate for only 10 minutes at most.”
Among other accomplishments, the mission allowed scientists to learn precise limits on the thickness of the shell and the size of the core, which for Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator at JPL, is the culmination of the mission’s success.
“We just have a very vague picture of what was going on inside Mars, and I think the real contribution of the InSight module is that we can really paint a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of the planet,” he said.
The legacy of the InSight mission to Mars will be available for future investigations
Months ago, NASA warned that the Insight program probably won’t continue until the middle of this year. In January, a large regional dust storm covered the landing craft’s solar panels, automatically triggering safe mode. Already this happened repeatedly in 2021, accumulating dust and reducing the power supply.
Due to weight and power concerns, the probe does not carry an additional dust cleaning system, such as motors or brushes. Then, using a hole punch in the robotic arm, the InSight team lowered the dust a bit on a board, and gained several power-ups, but these activities get more and more difficult as the available power decreases.
To better preserve the probe’s power, this robotic arm will be placed in “retirement mode,” in an inverted V-shape for views of the seismometer once it is not required to move from the ground. This should happen by the end of June.
From then on, the seismometer will at least function intermittently for another time (turning on and off from time to time), but according to the team, it and other instruments should be turned off by August. The “last flight” must begin by December, to put a definitive end to this historic mission.
His legacy, however, lives on. Bannerdt confirmed that the science team will remain busy for at least another six months on the spot missions missions, even after InSight completes data collection. “We receive the final data results, such as the final catalog of earthquakes on Mars and our final models for the planet,” he said.
According to Banerdt, the team will send its most recent data to a public archive, where that information will remain available forever, as well as a catalog of data from retired space missions, which can be revisited for future investigations.
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