NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is not responding to communications from Earth, likely due to low power.
Dust collected on the lander’s solar panels, slowly depleting its energy over the past two years.
InSight detected more than 1300 earthquakes on Mars and revealed the planet’s inner layers.
NASA suspects its $813 million InSight lander has succumbed to dust on the red planet’s surface, ending its four-year mission to listen for Martian earthquakes, dust devils and meteor impacts.
InSight’s solar panels have accumulated so much debris from Mars that it can no longer produce enough power for all of its science operations. It appears power levels have dropped so low that the lander can no longer communicate with mission control, NASA announced Monday evening.
“As of December 18, 2022, NASA’s InSight was not responding to communications from Earth,” the agency said in a statement. “The lander’s power has been declining, as expected, for several months and InSight is believed to have reached the end of operations. It is not known what caused the change in its energy; the last time the mission made contact with the spacecraft was on December 15, 2022.”
NASA continued, “The mission will continue to attempt to contact InSight.”
The scientists and engineers behind the mission — a platform with a robotic arm and set of science instruments — have been battling InSight’s steadily declining power levels for about two years. Designers had counted on gusts of wind to occasionally blow dust off the solar panels. But the open plain where InSight landed wasn’t very windy.
InSight detected more than 1,300 quakes on Mars, but failed to drill into the Martian crust
Since landing on Mars in November 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 Martian earthquakes, more than 10,000 dust devils, and atmospheric and seismic waves from meteors impacting the planet.
The earthquakes revealed that Mars’ crust is drier and more disintegrated by asteroid impacts than scientists thought — more like the moon than Earth — and has at least two sublayers, wrapped around a large liquid core. They even pointed to a potential chamber of magma — molten volcanic rock — deep underground.
Since a planet’s entire history is encoded in its innermost layers, InSight’s findings will help researchers rethink their models of how rocky planets form, and ultimately the study of worlds that could harbor life beyond our solar system.
But the lander struggled to reach its full potential. One of his instruments – a probe called “the mole” – failed to lodge in the Martian crust. NASA had to scrap that project in 2021.
Since then, the persistent dust from the red planet has repeatedly forced NASA to put InSight into a temporary hibernation, interrupting scientific activities.
The InSight team previously estimated that the lander would run out of power and die sometime between late October 2022 and January 2023. In recent weeks, mission leaders expected the lander to continue communicating well into January.
InSight looked where no mission had ever gone before: deep into Mars
NASA created the InSight mission to measure Mars’ vital signs: its pulse in the form of earthquakes, its temperature through the mole probe, and its “reflexes” through a radio experiment that measures the planet’s oscillation along its axis and provides information about the deep core of Mars.
While previous landers and rovers studied the planet’s surface, InSight was designed to explore its interior.
The robot completed its primary mission in 2020 and earned an extended mission through December 2022 that allowed it to capture Mars’ most dramatic earthquakes.
“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was kind of a big question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a press conference in May. “Now we can draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of Mars.”
An important part of that photo is missing: the internal temperature of Mars.
InSight’s mole instrument is designed to dig 10 feet into the Martian crust and measure the heat emanating from the planet’s core. That would have allowed scientists to trace the history of the planet’s formation and evolution over the past 4.6 billion years — a history that would help scientists track Martian water and possible life.
But in February 2019, the mole bounced into place on a foundation of firm, impermeable soil. It couldn’t slam into the crust. The InSight team spent the next two years troubleshooting, sending new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to help the mole, and anxiously waiting for photos that might show progress.
In 2021, NASA announced to abandon the mole.
“It’s just been a huge effort across the board, and one that we never expected,” Sue Smrekar, a lead scientist on the InSight team who worked on the mole for 10 years, told Insider at the time.
No other Mars mission in the near future from NASA can perform the internal temperature measurements for which the mole was designed.
“This has been our best effort to get that data,” Smrekar said, adding, “From my personal point of view it’s super disappointing, and scientifically it’s also a very significant loss. So it really feels like a huge letdown.”
Part of the reason they couldn’t continue the mole effort was that InSight was starting to run out of power. Thick dust had built up on the solar panels, and NASA had to conserve the lander’s scarce energy for operations that were guaranteed to produce scientific results.
NASA had no way of cleaning up the dust
In May 2022, InSight produced only one-tenth of the daily energy it generated at the start of the mission.
NASA’s engineers tried to remove the dust. The team instructed InSight to shake the solar panels, but they failed to do so.
They then instructed the robot to scoop up dirt and slowly drip it next to the solar panels. The thought was that some of the large grains of sand would catch in the wind, bounce off the solar panels, and drag some stubborn dust with them.
It worked – kind of. The first attempt added about 30 watt-hours to daily energy production. The team performed six of these dirt drop operations, which generated enough power to keep the seismometer running regularly.
That didn’t take long. A few months after giving up on the mole, engineers had to temporarily shut down InSight’s science instruments, reducing the lander to essential operations only to keep it functional as it weathered the harsh Martian winter on rationed power.
In 2022, InSight’s power levels dropped low enough to activate that safety mode at least three times.
InSight isn’t the first Mars robot to succumb to dust. NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover lost communications during a 2018 dust storm and never came back online.
NASA’s latest Mars missions – the rovers Curiosity and Perseverance – are powered by nuclear energy. They do not need sunlight to remain operational.
InSight’s mission may be over, but there are plenty of new findings that could emerge from the data.
“There’s so much data coming in all the time that it’s actually been hard to fully process all the information that’s in there,” Anna Mittelholz, a planetary scientist at Harvard University, previously told Insider. “So I think there will be a lot of investigations even after InSight stops working.”
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