NASA announces that the InSight spacecraft has a few months of “life” on Mars

After providing unprecedented measurements of seismic activity on Mars and even fascinating images (like that of a Sunrise), the InSight spacecraft is about to retire. This is what scientists from Nasa responsible for conducting the mission, which has been exploring the red planet since November 2018.

On Martian soil since November 2018, the InSight spacecraft has its days numbered on the red planet. Image: NASA/Disclosure

Recently, the lander detected the major earthquake already recorded not only on Mars, but anywhere off Earth: a “Marsquake” of magnitude 5. By Earth standards, it wouldn’t be serious. Here, tremors of this intensity occur half a million times a year and rarely cause more damage than throwing things off shelves or smashing glass.

However, images and detections like these will soon go down in history. Indeed, the InSight spacecraft can no longer support the accumulation of dust that has formed on its solar panels, gradually losing its ability to capture energy.

According to information provided by the US space agency at a press conference held on Wednesday (17), the module operates below one tenth of its available power of 5,000 watt hours per Martian day (which is called the sun and is equivalent to approximately 24h39min).

“When we landed, it was about 40 minutes to an hour, equivalent to the consumption of a conventional electric oven,” said Kathya Zamora Garcia, deputy project manager for InSight at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). from NASA. “Now InSight can’t produce more than 500 watt-hours, so we can only work for about 10 minutes at most.”

Powered by sunlight, the InSight probe is not resistant to the accumulation of dust on its energy harvesting panels. Image: NASA Insight Ethz/Reproduction

Among other accomplishments, the mission allowed scientists to know precise limits on the thickness of the crust and the size of the core, which, for JPL principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, is the crowning achievement of the mission.

“We just had a very blurry picture of what was going on inside Mars, and I think the real contribution of the InSight module is that we can now draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of the planet.” , did he declare.

The Legacy of the InSight mission to Mars will be available for future investigations

For months, NASA has warned that InSight probably won’t arrive until the middle of this year. In January, a major regional dust storm covered the lander’s solar panels, automatically triggering the security mode. This had already happened several times in 2021, generating a buildup of dust and reducing its power source.

Due to weight and power issues, the lander does not have any additional system for cleaning dust, such as motors or brushes. Then, using a hole in the robotic arm, the InSight team reduced the dust on a panel a bit and achieved several power boosts, but these activities become increasingly difficult as they progress. the available energy decreases.

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To best preserve the power of the probe, this robotic arm will be placed in “retreat pose”, in an inverted V position to have views of the seismometer once it is no longer ordered to move away from the Earth. . This should happen at the end of June.

From then on, the seismometer will operate at least intermittently for another period (being turned on and off occasionally), but, according to the team, it and other instruments should be turned off by August. The “last off” should be triggered by December, putting a definitive end to this historic mission.

His legacy, however, remains. Banerdt stressed that the science team will remain busy for at least another six months on immediate mission tasks, even after InSight completes its data collection. “We receive final data products, such as our final catalog of earthquakes on Mars and our final models of the planet,” he said.

According to Banerdt, the team will send its latest data to a public archive, where this information will remain available forever, adding to the catalog of data from retired space missions, which can be revisited for future investigations.

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