NASA officials announced in a press conference today that the InSight lander on Mars will likely stop operating at the end of 2022, following three years of scientific work on the surface of the Red Planet.
InSight arrived on Mars in November 2018, and during its time on the Martian surface it has collected remarkable data on the planet’s structure and the seismic events that emanate from its interior. Most recently, the lander detected its largest marsquake yet and the biggest quake ever detected on another world: a magnitude 5 event. (Magnitude 5.0 earthquakes are often felt on Earth, and tend to cause minor damage; the previous largest quake on Mars was nearly 10 times smaller than that.)
But now, the lander is beset with dust that has settled on its solar panels, hindering its ability to take in light and generate power. The InSight team came up with a McGuyver-esque way of shaking some of that dust off: by scooping up Martian soil and dropping it on the dust, they were able to marginally clean up the panels. That manoeuvre was done successfully six times, according to Kathya Zamora Garcia, the Deputy Project Manager for InSight.
But the reality of InSight’s situation is that it’s in a hostile environment; nothing lasts forever, and the lander seems fated to conclude its scientific operations this summer and terminate all operations by the end of the year, according to the InSight team’s estimates.
“One of InSight’s legacies is that it really proves the technique of seismology for planetary science,” said Bruce Banerdt, the InSight Principal Investigator, during the press conference. “We’ve been able to map out the inside of Mars for the first time in history.”
In its tenure, the lander detected just over 1,000 quakes. When it began its science, InSight was capable of running for about 5,000 watt-hours per sol (Martian day); now, overwhelmed by the Martian dust, the lander can only manage 500 watt-hours per sol. The reduction is the equivalent of going from running an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes per day on Earth to only about 10 minutes per day, Zamora Garcia said.
Seismic measurements are crucial for understanding the structure and evolution of rocky worlds like Earth, Mars, and Venus. On Earth, many seismic events are caused by plate tectonics, but others are caused by sources in the crust or convection in the mantle, the molten region below the crust. Mars has no plate tectonics, so the events are strictly the latter, though the seismometers also can pick up movements from impact events.
InSight was charged with (and delivered on) giving humanity the best-yet look at Mars’ geological and seismological systems. InSight revealed the thickness and makeup of the Martian crust, as well as details of the planet’s mantle and core. But the lander also had its struggles. Dust storms previously forced the lander into safe mode, and the InSight ‘Mole’ — a heat probe that was supposed to dig into the Martian surface — got stuck in the vexing consistency of the Martian soil. The Mole was abandoned in January 2021.
Scientific operations could end as early as mid-July, Zamora Garcia said, but InSight’s fate ultimately comes down to the favorability (or ire) of the Martian climate. “It’s exceeded our expectations at just about every turn on Mars,” Banerdt said. “It may actually last longer than that.”
An errant dust storm could doom the lander even earlier, or a fortuitous dust devil could whip the accreted dust off the lander’s solar panels, providing a boost in power. “We’re working to get as much as we can, but we’ll just have to see what Mars and InSight gives us,” Banerdt said.
Barring any Martian miracles, the fastidious InSight lander is on its last legs. For every one of its struggles and failures, the lander produced a bevy of data on the buried secrets of rocky worlds beyond our own. So thanks, InSight, for all your unheralded perseverance.