NASA ends InSight Mars mission early due to dusty solar panels

NASA is ending a year-long effort to keep its $813 million InSight lander alive on Mars.

InSight has been operating at reduced power since layers of dust settled on its solar panels and stuck there. Today, it produces only a tenth of the daily energy that it generated at the start of the mission. In 2018, its battery charge was enough to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes. Today, he could only operate such an oven for 10 minutes, according to mission leader Kathya Zamora Garcia.

NASA had previously approved funding to run InSight through December 2022, but agency officials said at a press conference on Tuesday that they expect power levels to be so low d t by the end of the summer that the lander will definitively end its scientific operations.

“Based on our current energy level, I’m going approximately mid-July, maybe early July,” Zamora Garcia said during the briefing. She pointed out that the schedule is unclear and depends on the weather.

Insight lander solar panels split image clean panels on the left covered in dust on the right

A solar panel on the InSight lander in December 2018 (left) and June 2021 (right).

NASA/JPL-Caltech


Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight’s seismometer has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars and several thousand dust devils. Seismic waves from these earthquakes have revealed that the Martian crust is drier and more fragmented by asteroid impacts than scientists thought – more like the moon than Earth – and has at least two sublayers . The lander also revealed that Mars has a large liquid core.

“We were able to map the interior of Mars for the very first time in history,” Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Scientists will likely continue to analyze InSight data for years to come. Since a planet’s full history is encoded in its inner layers, the results will help researchers revise their models of how rocky planets form and ultimately inform the study of worlds that could harbor life. beyond our solar system.

“This mission is really near and dear to my heart,” Banerdt said, adding, “I’ve been trying to get a seismometer on Mars for most of my career.”

Although InSight has achieved its goal of studying the deep internal structure of Mars, its last year of research on the planet has been regularly interrupted by shutdowns to save power.

InSight will spend the year slowly closing

Insight graph shows dust accumulation and energy drop

InSight’s solar panels were producing about 5,000 watt-hours every Martian day after the spacecraft landed in November 2018. But in the spring of 2022, they were producing about 500 watt-hours per day.

NASA/JPL-Caltech



The lander’s home in an open plain called Elysium Planitia turned out to be less windy than scientists predicted, allowing thick dust to build up on its solar panels. There’s still a chance a gust of wind could clear the panels and save the spacecraft, but mission leaders aren’t holding out hope.

Dust is a common pest for robots on Mars. The same year that InSight landed on Mars, the Opportunity rover’s battery drained during a dust storm. It never turned back on. Earlier this month, NASA temporarily lost contact with its four-pound Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, as winter brought grueling cold and increased dust levels in the atmosphere.

InSight’s death will be more gradual than Opportunity’s. It begins in just a few weeks, when mission officials plan to move its robotic arm into a “retreat pose,” Zamora Garcia said. Then they will turn off the scientific instruments one by one, finally saying goodbye to the seismometer at the end of the summer.

After that, they think InSight will continue to produce enough power to give them a status update every day or so, along with the occasional photo from Mars. By the end of the year, they expect to lose the lander completely.

NASA engineers struggled to outsmart Mars dust and dirt

InSight’s engineering team spent most of the lander mission troubleshooting.

Insight Lander space science platform robot with two octagonal solar panels deployed inside a clean room with technicians

InSight’s solar panels are rolled out for testing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, April 30, 2015.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin



One of the lander’s most prized scientific instruments was a pile driver called “the mole,” designed to burrow into the Martian crust and take the planet’s temperature. The mole immediately encountered a problem: the ground of Elysium Planitia was much harder than expected by NASA scientists. Instead of flowing around the mole’s outer shell, giving it friction to keep pounding deeper, the dirt stayed firm. The mole was supposed to dig 10 feet, but it got stuck just an inch or two below the surface.

The NASA team has been trying to fix the problem for two years, passing new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm maneuvers to help the mole, and eagerly awaiting photos that might show progress. Instead, the mole came out of its hole.

mars outline mole heat probe

InSight’s robotic arm next to its “mole” thermal probe, after the probe popped out of its hole, October 26, 2019.

NASA/JPL-Caltech



Eventually, the InSight team ran out of options. At the same time, the lander lacked power. There was not much energy to devote to experimental attempts at burial. They made the tough decision to give up their mole.

“That was probably the biggest disappointment of the mission,” Banerdt said.

After that, NASA engineers could only buy time for their lander. The team first tried asking InSight to shake the solar panels, but that didn’t remove the dust.

nasa lander dusty robot platform with two octagon solar panels on mars

InSight took this “selfie”, a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11, 2019, using a camera on the lander’s robotic arm.

NASA/JPL-Caltech



Then they asked the robot to pick up the dirt and slowly trickle it down next to the solar panels. The idea was that some of the large grains of sand would get caught in the wind, bounce off the solar panels, and carry some stubborn dust with them.

It worked – kinda. The first attempt added about 30 watt hours to daily power output. The team conducted six such earth runoff operations, which generated enough energy to keep the seismometer running steadily.

NASA Mars InSight Lander

An artist’s rendering of the InSight lander, with its “mole” thermal probe carved into the Martian crust.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


A few months after losing its mole, in 2021, InSight engineers began hibernating the lander for the winter. NASA slowly shut down the lander’s science instruments to conserve power during the cold months when Mars receded from the sun, further decreasing InSight’s power supply.

At the time, Banerdt told NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group that the lander’s mission would likely end soon after the onset of the following Martian winter, in April 2022.

white dome insight seismometer on mars surface dirt

InSight’s seismometer sits on the Martian surface, photographed by the lander.

NASA/JPL-Caltech



InSight resumed science operations long enough to detect its largest quakes to date – three quakes reaching magnitude 4.2 – and then an even larger quake of magnitude 5 on May 4.

“This earthquake is really going to be a treasure trove of scientific information when we sink our teeth into it,” Banerdt said.

Just three days later, on May 7, InSight’s power supply fell below a level that triggers its failsafe mode, suspending non-essential functions, including scientific activities, for the second time this year. year.

Banerdt’s team will spend the next few months keeping the lander powered and collecting as much data as possible.

“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was kind of just a big question mark,” Banerdt said, adding, “Now we can actually draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of Mars.”