Concern at NASA: Could one of its robots on Mars be out of service?

Concern at NASA: Could one of its robots on Mars be out of service?

NASA’s InSight robot has arrived on Mars to study its internal movements (REUTERS/NASA/JPL)

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is gradually losing power and will likely end science operations later this summer.. The operating team the InSight spacecraft expects the lander to stop working in December, concluding a mission that has so far detected more than 1,300 earthquakes or Martian quakes, being the most recent, one of magnitude 5 occurred on May 4, 2022.

The information collected during these earthquakes has allowed scientists to measure the depth and composition of the crust, mantle and core of Mars. Besides, preview (short for Interior Exploration Through Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) recorded crucial meteorological data and studied remnants of Mars’ ancient magnetic field.InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and laid the foundation for future missions.. We can apply what we’ve learned about the internal structure of Mars to Earth, the Moon, Venus and even rocky planets in other solar systems,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division of the Nasa.

Illustration of the InSight module with the seismometer and the drill in the foreground (NASA/JPL)
Illustration of the InSight module with the seismometer and the drill in the foreground (NASA/JPL)

InSight has landed on Mars on November 26, 2018. Fitted with a pair of solar arrays each measuring approximately 2.2 meters in diameter, it was designed to accomplish the mission’s primary science objectives during its first year on Mars (nearly two Earth years ). Having reached them, the spacecraft is now on an extended mission and its solar panels produce less power as they continue to collect dust.

Due to reduced power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm into its resting position (called “retirement posture”) for the final time later this month. Initially intended to deploy the lander’s seismometer and thermal probe, the arm played an unexpected role in the mission: in addition to being used to help bury the thermal probe After the sticky Martian soil presented challenges for the probe, the team used the arm in a innovative way to remove dust of solar panels. As a result, the seismometer was able to operate more frequently than it otherwise would have, which led to new discoveries.

NASA's InSight instruments on Mars (REUTERS)
NASA’s InSight instruments on Mars (REUTERS)

When InSight landed, the solar panels were producing about 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day, or ground, enough to power an electric furnace for an hour and 40 minutes. Now they produce about 500 watt hours per floor, enough to power the same electric furnace for just 10 minutes. Additionally, seasonal changes begin at Elysium Planitia, InSight’s location on Mars. Over the next few months, there will be more dust in the air, which will reduce sunlight and power to the lander. While previous efforts removed some dust, the mission would need a more powerful dust clearing event, such as a “dust devil” (a passing whirlwind), to reverse the current trend.

We expected a dusting off as we have seen several times with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who is leading the mission. “It’s still possible, but the energy is low enough that our goal is to make the most of the science we can still collect,” he added.

Seismometer of the InSight mission placed on the surface of Mars (NASA)
Seismometer of the InSight mission placed on the surface of Mars (NASA)

If only 25% of InSight’s panels were blown away, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per sun, enough to continue collecting scientific data.. However, at the current rate of power decay, InSight’s non-seismic instruments will rarely light up after the end of May. Power is prioritized for the lander’s seismometer, which will operate at certain times of the day, such as at night, when winds are low and earthquakes are easier for the seismometer to “hear”. The seismometer should be extinguished by the end of the summer, concluding the scientific phase of the mission.

At this point, the lander will still have enough power to operate, take occasional photos, and communicate with Earth. But the team hopes that around December the power will be low enough that one day InSight will simply stop responding.

The probe to study Mars' internal heat aboard NASA's InSight lander has ended its mission, not getting the friction it needs to dig.  (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)
The probe to study Mars’ internal heat aboard NASA’s InSight lander has ended its mission, not getting the friction it needs to dig. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

Learn more about the mission

the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, operated by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruiser stage and lander, and is supporting spacecraft operations for the mission.

Several European partners, including the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), support the InSight mission. CNES supplied the SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) instrument to NASA, whose principal researcher is IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris).

Important contributions to SEIS have come from the IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and the University of Oxford in the UK; and JPL. The DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Center for Space Research (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. The Center of Astrobiology (CAB) of Spain provided the temperature and wind sensors.

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