NASA’s InSight lander on Mars isn’t responding to communications from Earth, likely due to low power levels.
Dust accumulated on the lander’s solar panels and slowly drained its energy over the last two years.
InSight detected more than 1,300 Mars quakes and revealed the planet’s interior layers.
NASA suspects its $813 million InSight lander has succumbed to dust on the surface of the red planet, ending its four-year mission of listening to Mars quakes, dust devils, and meteor impacts.
InSight’s solar panels have accumulated so much Martian grime that it can no longer produce enough power for all its scientific operations. It looks like power levels may have dropped so low that the lander can no longer communicate with mission control, NASA announced on Monday night.
“On Dec. 18, 2022, NASA’s InSight did not respond to communications from Earth,” the agency said in a statement. “The lander’s power has been declining for months, as expected, and it’s assumed InSight may have reached its end of operations. It’s unknown what prompted the change in its energy; the last time the mission contacted the spacecraft was on Dec. 15, 2022 .”
NASA continued: “The mission will continue to try and contact InSight.”
The scientists and engineers behind the mission — a platform with a robotic arm and a set of scientific instruments — have been battling InSight’s steadily declining power levels for about two years. Designers had counted on gusts of wind to periodically blow dust off the solar panels. But the open plain where InSight landed has not been very windy.
InSight detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars but could not drill into the Martian crust
Since it landed on Mars in November 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 Mars earthquakes, more than 10,000 dust devils, and atmospheric and seismic waves of meteors striking the planet.
The quakes revealed the Martian crust is drier and more broken up from asteroid impacts than scientists thought — more like the moon than like Earth — and has at least two sublayers, wrapped around a large liquid core. They even pointed to a potential chamber of magma — molten volcanic rock — deep underground.
Since a planet’s full history is encoded in its interior layers, InSight’s findings will help researchers revisit their models of how rocky planets form, and ultimately, inform the study of worlds that could host life beyond our solar system.
But the lander struggled to reach its full potential. One of its instruments — a probe called “the mole” — was unable to burrow into the Martian crust. NASA had to abandon that project in 2021.
Since then, the persistent dust of the red planet has repeatedly forced NASA to put InSight into temporary hibernation, pausing scientific activities.
The InSight team previously estimated the lander would run out of power and die sometime between late October 2022 and January 2023. In recent weeks, mission leaders expected the lander to maintain communications well into January.
InSight looked where no mission had before: deep within Mars
NASA created the InSight mission to take Mars’ vital signs: its pulse in the form of earthquakes, its temperature through the mole probe, and its “reflexes” through a radio experiment that measured the planet’s wobble along its axis and provided information about Mars’ deep core .
While previous landers and rovers studied the planet’s surface, InSight was designed to probe its interior.
The robot completed its primary mission in 2020, earning an extended mission through December 2022 that allowed it to capture Mars’ most dramatic earthquakes.
“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was kind of just a big question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing in May. “Now we can actually draw a quantitatively precise picture of the inside of Mars.”
One key piece of that picture is missing: Mars’ internal temperature.
InSight’s mole instrument was designed to burrow 10 feet into the Martian crust and measure the heat flowing out of the planet’s core. That would have allowed scientists to trace the history of the planet’s formation and evolution over the last 4.6 billion years — a history that would help scientists track down Martian water, and possibly life.
But in February 2019, the mole found itself bouncing in place on a foundation of firm, impenetrable soil. It couldn’t hammer into the crust. The InSight team spent the next two years troubleshooting, beaming new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to assist the mole, and anxiously waiting for photos that might show progress.
In 2021, NASA announced it was abandoning the mole.
“It’s just been a huge effort across the board, and one that we never anticipated,” Sue Smrekar, a lead scientist on the InSight team who spent 10 years working on the mole, told Insider at the time.
No other Mars mission in NASA’s foreseeable future can take the internal temperature measurements the mole was designed to take.
“This has been our best attempt to get that data,” Smrekar said, adding, “From my personal standpoint, it’s super disappointing, and scientifically it’s also a very significant loss. So it feels really like a huge letdown.”
Part of the reason they couldn’t continue the mole effort was that InSight was starting to run low on power. Thick dust had accumulated on the solar panels, and NASA had to preserve the lander’s scarce energy for operations guaranteed to return scientific results.
NASA had no way to clear the dust
By May 2022, InSight was producing just one-tenth of the daily energy it generated at the start of the mission.
NASA’s engineers tried to remove the dust. The team instructed InSight to shake the solar panels, but that didn’t clear them off.
Then they instructed the robot to scoop up dirt and slowly trickle it next to the solar panels. The thinking was that some of the large grains of sand would get caught in the wind, bounce off the solar panels, and take some stubborn dust with them.
It worked — a little. The first attempt added about 30 watt-hours to daily energy production. The team conducted six of these dirt-trickling operations, which generated enough power to keep the seismometer running regularly.
That didn’t last long. A few months after giving up on the mole, engineers had to temporarily shut down InSight’s scientific instruments, reducing the lander to only essential operations to keep it functional as it weathered the harsh Martian winter on rationed power.
In 2022, InSight’s power levels dropped low enough to trigger that safety mode at least three times.
InSight isn’t the first Mars robot to succumb to dust. NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover dropped out of communication during a dust storm in 2018 and never came back online.
NASA’s newest Mars missions — the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers — are nuclear-powered. They don’t need sunlight to stay operational.
InSight’s mission may be over, but there are plenty of new findings to come from its data.
“There’s been so much data coming all the time that it’s actually been hard to fully take all the information that’s in it,” Anna Mittelholz, a planetary scientist at Harvard University, previously told Insider. “So I think that a lot of studies will result, even after InSight is not operating anymore.”
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