The Martian weather gave the landings extra time to catch the swamps.
NASA agency InSight Landing Vehicle touched Mars in November 2018 with tools intended to help scientists see the depths of the Red Planet. InSight runs on sunlight and dust covers its solar panels, leaving the probe capable of generating a tenth of the energy it could harvest as a newcomer on Mars. Scientists expected that the probe would do just that running out of energy By the end of the summer, but InSight is still gaining scientific data and may continue to do so for several months to come — possibly until January.
“However, if we get a dust storm or something like that, it could happen sooner,” Chuck Scott, InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which runs the mission, told Space.com. . “We’ve gotten so low now that if we get any kind of weather on Mars, it could mean the end of the mission.”
Related: NASA’s Mars Insight probe takes dusty ‘final selfie’ as power dwindles
The amount of energy InSight can produce each Martian day, or Sol, depends on two factors: dust accumulating on solar panels and dust in Mars atmosphere. During a dust storm, both factors can cause a problem.
Many Mars explorers have encountered the same problem: although perseverance And the Curiosity of Rover vehicles use nuclear power, their twin predecessors spirit And the Chance Both rovers opposed the accumulated dust, and An important dust storm ended the opportunity.
But Spirit and Opportunity found unexpected help from “cleanup events,” potential blasts of wind—from dust storms, ironically—that removed dust and boosted their energy output. InSight has not had this kind of luck, and it tries to get rid of the dust and mimic the cleaning event by spraying dust near the panels Didn’t do much.
As early as June 2021, InSight employees estimated The probe will have to close this spring. By May, they thought the spacecraft could last until the end of summer and implemented a mode aimed at prioritizing power delivery to the seismometer. The team also reset InSight’s rules to avoid the protective “safe mode” that spacecraft usually enter when something goes wrong — it will work properly so it doesn’t.
But the probe is still working. “Since then, we’ve changed our operations a little bit, and we’ve also seen a little bit of Martian weather which has been lucky for us, because we haven’t seen any major dust storms or anything else,” Scott said.
Now, InSight is entering a season when scientists typically see some regional dust storms, which they thought would hasten the probe’s demise. But the season starts off more gently than in the past, providing a respite for InSight.
“We were kind of expecting that there would be some regional dust storms and that would give us a problem,” Scott said. “But looking at the weather this year, people who have forecast Martian weather, they think we won’t see any regional storms lingering for another two weeks.”
When InSight landed, it could generate 5,000 watt-hours per Martian day (about 40 minutes longer than a land day). Since then, the strength has decreased. “Every time there’s a storm or something on Mars, it’s going to land,” Scott said. He added that some storms knocked out production by 100 watt-hours, and some more than 1,000. “It will vary depending on the size of the storm.”
The spacecraft currently produces about 400 watt-hours per Martian day, making it less than a tenth of its capacity upon landing. Scott said the probe needs about 300 watt-hours each Martian day to keep the seismometer running, communications and basic functions.
One day, when the probe doesn’t hit that, it will position itself on what mission personnel call a “dead bus,” when the spacecraft silently drains another of its battery. “It will get to a point where the battery will fail and there will be no way to restart itself,” Scott said.
Mission personnel aren’t quite sure how long the final battery drain will take, but it will likely take a few years. There is little chance that a friendly wind blowing during that time will remove enough dust for the solar panels to get back to work.
“Based on what we’ve seen, we think the probability of that happening during the time before the battery actually failed is probably 10%,” Scott said. “So once we get to a dead bus, that’s pretty much the end of the job.”
But even with a “dead bus” looming, the team is working to get every bit of data out of InSight. Mission scientists decided the probe could go down to eight hours for observation sessions while still providing useful data. Currently, the probe uses about half a day to recharge and half a day to operate the seismometer. As the power supply dwindles, this balance will shift until the craft monitors for eight hours at a time and then takes a few marital hours to recharge between sessions.
“We’re still getting earthquakes, and we’re still seeing things happening in the seismometer,” Scott said, noting that the probe experienced an earthquake at the end of August.
“We expect that to continue until the end of the mission,” he said. “We’re trying really hard to get as much science out of the car as possible, right down to the finish so you really die.”
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