Wednesday, February 8, 2023

NASA retires InSight Mars lander mission

NASA's Mars InSight lander falls silent.

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After more than four years of collecting unique science on Mars, NASA has ended its NASA InSight mission. The lander lost contact with the mission controllers at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

The controller team tried to contact the lander twice, but they didn’t get any response. Hence, they concluded: the spacecraft’s solar-powered batteries had run out of energy.

NASA has previously mentioned that “The spacecraft’s power generation continues to decline as windblown dust on its solar panels thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue as long as possible with what power remains. The end is expected to come in the next few weeks.”

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport. The mission aims to study the deep interior of Mars. The lander data has revealed information on the layers that make up Mars’ interior, as well as about the weather in this region of Mars and a lot of earthquake activity.

Its incredibly sensitive seismometer, daily monitoring by the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), and the Marsquake Service run by ETH Zurich all detected 1,319 marsquakes, including quakes brought on by meteoroid impacts, the largest of which uncovered boulder-size chunks of ice late last year.

Scientists may examine the planet’s crust, mantle, and core using information from the seismometer and information from such impacts, which help them establish the age of the planet’s surface.

Philippe Lognonné of Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, principal investigator of InSight’s seismometer, said, “With InSight, seismology was the focus of a mission beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo missions when astronauts brought seismometers to the Moon. We broke new ground, and our science team can be proud of all we’ve learned along the way.”

Challenges are a part of any Mars mission, and InSight was no exception. The lander had a self-hammering spike, dubbed “the mole,” designed to dig 16 feet (5 meters) through the surface. It also had a sensor-loaded tether that monitored the planet’s temperature so scientists could determine how much energy was left over from Mars’ genesis.

The mole struggled to get traction in the unusually clumpy soil around InSight because it was made for the loose, sandy soil encountered on prior missions. The device, provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), eventually buried its 16-inch (40-centimeter) probe near the surface while gathering important information about Martian soil’s thermal and physical characteristics. This is beneficial for any upcoming robotic or human missions that attempt to dig underground.

The mission effectively buried the mole thanks to JPL and DLR engineers’ creative use of the lander’s robotic arm. The arm and its tiny scoop were primarily designed to place scientific instruments on the Martian surface. Still, as power started to run low, they also assisted in cleaning dust from InSight’s solar panels. Counterintuitively, it was discovered by the mission that on windy days, they could sprinkle dirt from the scoop onto the panels, allowing the falling granules to sweep dust off the surfaces gently.

Bruce Banerdt of JPL, the mission’s principal investigator, said, “We’ve thought of InSight as our friend and colleague on Mars for the past four years, so it’s hard to say goodbye. But it has earned its richly deserved retirement.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said“I watched the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight conducted is cause for celebration. The seismic data alone from this Discovery Program mission offers tremendous insights not just into Mars but other rocky bodies, including Earth.”

The agency will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case, but hearing from it at this point is considered unlikely. The last time InSight communicated with Earth was Dec. 15.

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