The end is near for NASA’s swamp hunter.
So much dust is choking off NASA’s Insight rover’s solar power supply that the Mars mission, which is doing well past its expiration date, is expected to stop soon.
“The spacecraft’s power generation continues to decline as wind-blown dust increases on solar panels, so the team has taken steps to last as long as possible with the remaining power,” NASA officials wrote in an update. (Opens in a new tab) Tuesday (November 1). The end is expected to come in the next few weeks.
Related: NASA’s Mars Insight lander spotted from orbit covered in dust
InSight landed in November 2018, on a mission to help scientists map the interior of Mars in unprecedented detail. The probe succeeded in achieving this goal, discovering more than 1,300 luminous swamps.
NASA officials wrote in an update. (InSight was supposed to supplement the seismic data with measurements from a penetrating thermal probe, but the latter instrument didn’t manage to go deep enough underground to do its job.)
InSight has far outlived its two-year primary mission on Earth. But the clock is ticking, thanks to the dust that regularly falls on its solar arrays. The dust build-up got so bad this summer that the mission team had to turn off all other InSight tools to keep the seismograph array running.
“We’ve reduced it to less than 20% of original generation capacity,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California said in an update Tuesday. “That means we can’t run the machines around the clock.”
Things got worse after a recent dust storm dumped more beans on my already ruddy Insight. The mission team turned off the lander’s seismometer to save power during the storm. It’s back now, but will likely run out of power in a few weeks.
Insight’s narrow team of about 30 people is busy preparing for the end of the mission, including archiving collected data for future scientific studies and filling out a dual engineering model called “Foresight,” which has been used (in part) to troubleshoot problems. Drill temperature probe. (These efforts were unsuccessful.)
“We will package it very carefully,” Bannerdt said of Foresight, which will be put into storage, for use in future missions. “She was a great tool, a great companion for us on this whole mission.”
There is no bailout for InSight, which was launched without solar panel cleaning procedures due to weight and energy concerns. NASA officials have sometimes asserted that Mars missions are getting lucky because winds blow dust away, but it’s unlikely that enough winds will come in to extend InSight’s life significantly at this point.
Related: NASA’s Mars Insight probe takes dusty ‘final selfie’ as power dwindles
The agency won’t announce the mission is over until InSight misses two check-ins with spacecraft orbiting the red planet relaying its information back to Earth, such as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Even after that, NASA’s Deep Space Network of radio dishes will continue to listen in if landing phones are in the house.
The team’s focus in the coming weeks will be to get as much science out of Insight as possible, just as they have done in the past few months.
“We will continue to do scientific measurements for as long as possible,” Banerdt said. “We are at the mercy of Mars. The weather on Mars is not rain and snow. The weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
Elizabeth Hoyle is co-author of the book “Why am I taller (Opens in a new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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