NASA has not heard from its InSight lander for 5 days. He may have run out of power and died on Mars.

The InSight lander photographs one of its solar panels in December 2018, left, and May 2022, right.NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is unresponsive to communications from Earth, likely due to low power levels.

  • Dust has collected on the lander’s solar panels and slowly drained its energy over the past two years.

  • InSight has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars and revealed the planet’s inner layers.

NASA suspects its $813 million InSight lander succumbed to dust on the Red Planet’s surface, ending its four-year mission to listen for Mars quakes, dust devils and meteor impacts .

InSight’s solar panels have accumulated so much Martian dirt that it can no longer produce enough power for all of its scientific operations. It appears power levels have dropped so low that the lander can no longer communicate with mission control, NASA announced late Monday.

“As of December 18, 2022, NASA’s InSight did not respond to communications from Earth,” the agency said in a statement. “The lander’s power has waned for months, as expected, and it is speculated that InSight may have reached the end of its operations. It is unknown what caused his energy to change; the last time the mission contacted the spacecraft was December 15, 2022.”

NASA continued: “The mission will continue to attempt to 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. The designers had relied on gusts of wind to periodically blow dust off the solar panels. But the open plain where InSight landed wasn’t very windy.

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

NASA’s InSight lander solar panels are rolled out for testing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, April 30, 2015.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

InSight detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars but could not pierce the Martian crust

Since landing on Mars in November 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes, more than 10,000 dust devils, and atmospheric and seismic waves from meteors hitting the planet.

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 sub-layers, wrapped around it. a large liquid core. They even pointed to a potential magma chamber – molten volcanic rock – deep underground.

Since a planet’s complete history is encoded in its inner layers, InSight’s findings will help researchers revise their models of rocky planet formation and ultimately inform the study of worlds that could support life beyond our solar system.

concept artist marsquake

This artist’s concept is a simulation of what seismic waves from an earthquake on Mars might look like as they travel through different layers of the Martian interior.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ETH Zurich/ Van Driel

But the lander struggled to reach its full potential. One of its instruments – a probe called “the mole” – could not dig into the Martian crust. NASA had to abandon this project in 2021.

Since then, lingering dust from the Red Planet has repeatedly forced NASA to put InSight into temporary hibernation, halting science activities.

The InSight team had previously estimated that the lander would run out of power and die between late October 2022 and January 2023. In recent weeks, mission leaders expected the lander to maintain communications until January.

outline mars lander illustration with labeled instruments and solar panels

An illustration of the Mars InSight lander.NASA/JPL-Caltech; Initiated

InSight looked where no mission had before: deep inside Mars

NASA created the InSight mission to take Mars’ vital signs: its pulse in the form of tremors, its temperature through the mole probe, and its “reflexes” through a radio experiment that measured the planet’s wobble along from its axis and provided information about the deep core of Mars. .

While previous landers and rovers surveyed 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 the most dramatic earthquakes on Mars.

NASA Mars InSight Lander

An artist’s rendering of the InSight lander on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was just a big question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a press briefing in May. “Now we can actually draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of Mars.”

A key element of this image is missing: the internal temperature of Mars.

InSight’s mole instrument was designed to dig 10 feet into the Martian crust and measure the heat coming out of the planet’s core. This would have allowed scientists to trace the history of the planet’s formation and evolution over the past 4.6 billion years – a story that would help scientists find Martian water, and perhaps life.

mars outline mole skitch heat probe

“The mole”, half out of its hole, October 26, 2019.NASA/JPL-Caltech

But in February 2019, the mole found itself bouncing in place on a base of firm, impenetrable ground. He couldn’t pound the crust. The InSight team spent the next two years troubleshooting, sending new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to help the mole, and eagerly awaiting photos that might show progress.

In 2021, NASA announced that it was abandoning the mole.

mars insight mole

InSight’s thermal probe, or mole, recoiled halfway through the hole it dug on October 26, 2019.NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It’s just been a huge effort on every level, and an effort that we never anticipated,” Sue Smrekar, a lead scientist on the InSight team who has spent 10 years working on the mole, told Insider. .

No other Mars mission in the foreseeable future from NASA can take the internal temperature measurements the mole was designed for.

“It was our best attempt to get this data,” Smrekar said, adding, “From my personal perspective it’s very disappointing, and scientifically it’s also a very significant loss. So it’s really a huge disappointment.”

Part of the reason they couldn’t continue the mole effort was that InSight was starting to run out of power. Thick dust had accumulated on the solar panels and NASA had to preserve the lander’s scarce energy for operations that guaranteed scientific results.

NASA had no way to clean up the dust

In May 2022, InSight produced only one tenth of the daily energy generated at the start of the mission.

Insight graph shows dust accumulation and energy drop

InSight’s solar panels were producing around 5,000 watt-hours every Martian day, or sol, after the spacecraft landed in November 2018. But by the spring of 2022, enough dust had settled on the panels that they weren’t producing only about 500 watt hours per ground.NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA engineers tried to remove the dust. The team asked InSight to shake the solar panels, but that didn’t remove them.

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.

It didn’t last long. Months after abandoning the mole, engineers had to temporarily shut down InSight’s science instruments, reducing the lander to only essential operations to keep it functional as it weathered the harsh Mars winter on rationed power.

In 2022, InSight power levels dropped low enough to trigger this failsafe mode at least three times.

InSight is not the first Martian robot to succumb to dust. NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover lost communication during a dust storm in 2018 and never came back online.

NASA’s newest missions to Mars – 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 discoveries to come from its data.

“There’s so much data coming in all the time that it’s actually hard to fully take in all of the information in it,” Anna Mittelholz, a planetary scientist at Harvard University, told Insider. “So I think a lot of studies will come out of that, even after InSight stops working.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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