NASA’s Insight spacecraft Not quite dead yet.
But InSight, a robotic probe stationary on Mars, is steadily getting weaker as dust builds up on its solar panels. Mission managers predict that by late summer it will not have enough power to keep its machines running and that by the end of the year it will shut down.
“It’s just because of the lack of power,” Cathia Zamora Garcia, deputy project scientist for the mission, said during a news conference on Tuesday.
The spacecraft could be in luck if a dust demon — a miniature whirlwind swirling along the Martian Earth — passes and blows dust off the solar panels. Although several thousand dust demons were discovered in the area, none of them helped clean up InSight.
“We’re not very optimistic given that three and a half years have passed and we haven’t seen one yet,” said Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator at InSight, “but it still could happen.”
when InSight landed in November 2018, pure solar panels produced 5,000 watt-hours of energy each Mars day. Now, covered in dust, they produce a tenth of the quantity.
The spacecraft achieved its main goals during its initial two-year mission; Then NASA agreed to a two-year extension until the end of 2022.
With power dwindling, managers will begin shutting down the spacecraft’s instruments and stockpiling its mechanical arm. They will try to keep the craft’s main scientific instrument, the sensitive seismometer, running for as long as possible, although they will begin operating it in just two weeks for part of the day, or perhaps every day, rather than continuous operation. .
Ms Garcia said the seismometer will likely shut down completely sometime in July. After that, there will be enough power to record in wireless communications and possibly take an occasional photo.
Once InSight loses its power, it will join a variety of NASA missions stranded on the Red Planet after long and successful tours, including the two Viking landers launched in 1976 and the Spirit and Opportunity vehicles that arrived in 2004 for 90-day missions But it lasted for years. NASA still has Two more rovers and one experimental helicopter The study of the surface of Mars, and China has one rover in operation there.
Most of NASA’s missions to Mars over the past two decades have focused on the possibility that the fourth planet, the Sun, might one day be hospitable to life.
InSight — the name is a compression of the mission’s full name, Inner Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — was a diversion focused instead on the mysteries of Mars’ deep interior. The $830 million mission aims to answer questions about the planet’s structure, composition and geological history.
Mars lacks plate tectonics, which are the slipping pieces of crust that make up our planet’s surface. But earthquakes do occur nonetheless, driven by other tectonic stresses such as the shrinkage and cracking of the crust as it cools.
During its mission, InSight recorded more than 1,300 earthquakes. Just two weeks ago, I noticed the biggest earthquake yet: it measured 5.0, modest by Earth standards, but higher than scientists expected for Mars.
The epicenter of the 5.0-magnitude earthquake is near a series of fissures known as the Cerberus Fossae, where many of the earthquakes detected earlier have occurred, Dr. Bannerdt said. But he added, “It’s not actually in Cerberus Fossae, which is interesting. And we don’t really understand that yet.”
Scientists only have two weeks to analyze the data, he said, but were able to clearly see the seismic signals, and perhaps the earthquake was large enough to make Mars begin to vibrate like a bell, despite the frequencies too low for them to be. he heard.
“This earthquake will really be a treasure trove of scientific information when we get into it with our teeth,” Dr. Bannerdt said.
By listening to the echoes of seismic waves bouncing inside Mars, InSight has produced data that can be converted into 3D map of the planet.
The crust turned out to be thinner than expected and appeared to consist of three sub-layers. Seismic signals have also measured the size of the core: it is about 2,300 miles in diameter.
The seismometer revealed not only what’s below but also the dynamics in the air above. Winds blowing between 10 and 15 miles per hour over InSight’s solar panels caused the spacecraft to vibrate, and the spacecraft recorded the vibrations, which turned into sounds.
InSight’s other major instrument, a thermal probe that was supposed to hammer itself about 16 feet into Martian soil, failed to fully deploy.
Despite two years of efforts, the machine, nicknamed the “Mole,” rose no more than an inch below the surface. The soil they landed on tends to clump, a characteristic that differs from material encountered elsewhere on Mars. The agglomeration reduced the surface area of the dirt pressed against the sides of the mole, and due to insufficient friction, it was unable to knock itself down.
“It turns out that the particular soil that was under Insight, when we landed, had a cohesive layer of crusty soil on top of it,” said Dr. Bannerdt. “And that crust, the soil kind of disintegrated when the mole tried to break through.”
Without the mole underground, scientists would not have hoped for measurements of heat flowing from the planet, which would have revealed more accurate data about Mars’ internal temperatures today and the energy driving geological processes.
“That’s what we’ve been missing,” Dr. Bannerdt said.
Even after InSight’s silence, there will still be a chance that a dust demon will engulf the solar panels and the spacecraft can revive.
“We’ll listen,” said Mrs. Garcia. “And as soon as we get a few beeps, if it does happen again, if there is normal cleaning, we will assess if there is enough power to power the probe again.”