A closer look at what it takes to finish the mission as the spacecraft’s power supply continues to dwindle.
The day is approaching when NASA’s Mars InSight lander will go silent, ending its historic mission to uncover the secrets of the red planet’s interior. The spacecraft’s power output continues to decline as wind-blown dust on its solar panels thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue as long as possible on what power remains. The end is expected to come within the next few weeks.
But even as the cohesive 25- to 30-member operations team — a small group compared to other Mars missions — continues to squeeze the most out of InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), the I have also started taking measures to wind down the assignment.
Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like.
The most important of the final steps of the InSight mission is to store its wealth of data and make it available to scientists around the world. Lander data has provided details of Mars’ inner layers, its liquid core, the surprisingly varied subsurface remnants of its mostly extinct magnetic field, weather on this part of Mars, and plenty of seismic activity.
InSight’s seismometer, provided by France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), has detected more than 1,300 Martian earthquakes since the lander landed in November 2018, the largest measuring a magnitude of 5. It even recorded tremors from meteoroids. Observing how the seismic waves from these quakes change as they travel through the planet provides invaluable insight into the interior of Mars but also provides a better understanding of how all rocky worlds, including Earth and its moons, form.
“Finally, we can see Mars as a layered planet, with different thicknesses, compositions,” said Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re really starting to tease out the details. Now it’s not just this puzzle; it’s actually a living, breathing planet.”
The seismometer readings will join the only other set of extraterrestrial seismic data, from the Apollo lunar missions, in NASA’s Planetary Data System. They will also go into an international archive run by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, which contains “all terrestrial seismic network data sites,” said JPL’s Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator. “Now we also have one on Mars.”
Smrekar said the data is expected to continue to yield discoveries for decades.
Earlier this summer, the lander was so low on power that the mission shut down all of InSight’s other science instruments to keep the seismometer running. They even turned off the fail-safe system that would otherwise automatically shut down the seismometer if the system detects that the lander’s power output is dangerously low.
“We were down to less than 20% of original production capacity,” Banerdt said. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments 24/7.”
Recently, after a regional dust storm added to the lander’s dust-covered solar panels, the team decided to shut down the seismometer entirely to conserve power. Now that the storm is over, the seismometer is collecting data again — though the mission expects the lander to only have enough power for a few more weeks.
Of the seismometer’s array of sensors, only the most sensitive were still operational, said Liz Barrett, who leads science and instrument operations for the team at JPL, adding, “We’re pushing it to the end.”
Packing up twin
A silent member of the team is ForeSight, the full-scale engineering model of InSight at JPL’s In-Situ Instrument Laboratory. Engineers used ForeSight to practice how InSight would place science instruments on the Martian surface with the lander’s robotic arm, test techniques for getting the lander’s thermal probe into the sticky Martian soil, and develop ways to reduce noise picked up by the seismometer.
ForeSight will be stored and stored. “We will pack it up with loving care,” Banerdt said. “It’s been a good tool, a good companion for us throughout this mission.”
Declares the mission over
NASA will declare mission ended when InSight misses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars-orbiting spacecraft, part of the Mars Relay Network — but only if the cause of the missed communication is the lander itself, said network manager Roy Gladden of JPL. After that, NASA’s Deep Space Network will listen for a while, just in case.
There will be no heroic measures to re-establish contact with InSight. Even if a mission-saving event – a strong gust of wind, e.g. that cleans the panels – is not excluded, it is considered unlikely.
In the meantime, as long as InSight remains connected, the team will continue to collect data. “We will continue to make scientific measurements as long as we can,” 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.”
More about the assignment
JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and is supporting spacecraft for the mission.
A number of European partners, including France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the seismic experiment for internal structure (SEIS) instrument for NASA, with the principal investigator at the IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from the IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the UK; and JPL. DLR provided the heat flow and physical properties package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors, and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) supplied a passive laser retroreflector.
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Written by Pat Brennan
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