Farewell to NASA’s InSight lander before it gets buried in Martian dust

Farewell to NASA’s InSight lander before it gets buried in Martian dust

One of NASA’s best missions on Mars is Abandon Ghost. After four years of engaging scientific exploration, NASA’s Mars Insight probe is entering its last days of work. It’s time to say goodbye to the thick layers of Martian dust blocking the rover’s solar panels.

Landing on Mars in 2018, InSight was the first robotic lander to peer deep into the planet’s interior to study its crust, mantle, and core. Since then, the probe has returned dozens of valuable scientific data and clear images of the surface of Mars to scientists on Earth. Using a suite of powerful tools, the mission helped answer key questions about how rocky planets formed and evolved in our solar system and beyond.

To date, one of the probe’s greatest achievements has been the discovery and recording of more than 1,300 “quakes,” the equivalent of Martian earthquakes, in an effort to determine the level of the planet’s tectonic activity. During its existence, the craft has even listened to meteors impacting the planet. Although the flexible craft is currently still active, NASA scientists expect the mission to end sometime in the next few weeks. As heartbreaking as it is when you see InSight silent, the probe’s demise comes as no surprise. By agency standards, the craft has already exceeded its original two-year mission schedule.

NASA’s Insight landing team enjoyed a cake in the shape of Mars on the first anniversary of the spacecraft’s landing on November 26, 2018. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mission will officially end when the probe misses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars Relay Network, a constellation of five spacecraft that orbit the planet and transmit commands and data between Earth and Mars missions on Earth. Then another communications system, NASA’s Deep Space Network, will be tuning in for a while, just to make sure that the last curtain really falls. However, although all missions end sooner or later, Mark Banning, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and project scientist for the Insight mission, says this mission will hold a place in his heart forever.

“InSight will always be the thing that introduced me to space,” he says. “Scientifically speaking, I’m elated about what we’ve done on Mars.” But when getting a full account of InSight’s life, its expiration opens new questions about what it takes to survive the Martian dust, whether its robotic corpse can be saved, and what will happen to all of its data.

In preparation for the mission’s final farewell, here are some burning questions answered.

Dust kills everything

Dealing with dust is an inevitable nuisance if you want to conquer the surface of Mars. Dust storms on Mars can be all-consuming, extremely powerful and, at times, very problematic.

In 2018, one of these storms darkened the sky for a long time, eventually bringing down NASA’s Opportunity spacecraft, one of the agency’s oldest and most successful Mars missions. Obi, as the robot is fondly called, was pronounced dead after scientists who had hoped to revive the craft could no longer communicate with it. As for InSight, the mission has exceeded expectations in dealing with its fair share of challenges, says Emily Stave, JPL’s chief engineer and uplink leader, someone who helps coordinate the team’s mission.

A set of three images of the impacts of meteorites on Mars
Three meteorite impacts detected by the seismometer on NASA’s Insight lander and captured by the agency’s Mars Exploration Rover using its HiRISE camera. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

In previous attempts to survive these storms, InSight once put itself into safe mode to conserve its battery after dust prevented sunlight from reaching solar panels. Plus, in May of this year, the rover’s power was so low, the mission had to hang all of InSight’s other science instruments just to make sure the rover had enough juice to continue powering the seismometer—a circular, dome-shaped instrument resembling a stethoscope. The doctor, sitting on the roof, senses the seismic vibrations. To combat the negative impact of dust, NASA originally made InSight’s solar panels so large that they were generating several times the power the craft needed at the start of its mission.

[Related: NASA’s InSight lander is basically about to play an epic claw game on Mars]

But why aren’t Mars missions equipped with the ability to remove any life-ending obstacles?

The historical lack of any windshield wiper device on a Mars craft is due to cost, efficiency, and potential risks, Stave says, noting that adding unnecessary technical components to the craft’s design could jeopardize mission objectives. “One of the things we always push in spacecraft design is to keep things simple,” she says. “The more complex the thing, the more dangerous it will fail.”

Could InSight rise again?

After its passage, the spacecraft will survive NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance spacecraft from the InSight program. Although the veteran rover Curiosity is about 373 miles from InSight, scientists say a rescue mission is unlikely. Mainly, because the distance between them is farther than Curiosity’s total distance traveled since the mission first landed in 2012.

Besides current US efforts, another notable rover, China’s Zhurong rover, is also still operating, exploring a region of the Red Planet called Utopia Planitia as it seeks to learn more about what Mars looked like in the past.

A circular solar panel covered in red dust on the surface of Mars
NASA’s InSight Mars probe captured this image of a solar panel covered in dust on April 24, 2022. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When InSight’s solar panels are completely obscured, NASA currently has no plans to take what the agency calls “heroic measures” to find a way to reconnect and rescue the craft, and provide a gust of wind that could sweep away enough offending particles for InSight to start charging again. But Banning says the possibility of the craft waking up does exist.

[Related: Marsquakes reveal the red planet is way more radioactive than we thought]

“The probe itself is really designed so that it can come back again,” Banning says. Like a computerized Frankenstein monster, there could come a day when enough dust is removed for InSight to restart itself, but for now, such a scenario is as unlikely as a true zombie uprising.

“We know what we need to listen to if this possibility occurs, but of course we don’t count on that,” Banning says.

data dump

As long as the mission’s scientists are able to communicate with InSight, the craft will certainly continue to operate constantly, continuing to take its latest measurements and images. All of its scientific data, periodically released to the public, will most likely later be collected in a catalog of events with a summary of all the probe’s activities. The InSight data will be a last memento, the scientific obituary that today’s scientists hope future generations will access and use to conduct their own experiments and studies.

“The spacecraft can die, but that kind of science keeps on giving,” Stave says.

How did it start and how is it going.

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