NASA announces the imminent end of InSight robot operations on Mars

The robot will leave a legacy of data that scientists around the world will benefit from for years to come, which will help improve human understanding of planet formation, NASA said during the announcement on Tuesday.

Equipped with an ultra-sensitive seismometer, the spacecraft recorded more than 1,300 “Martian earthquakes”, including one of magnitude 5 on May 4, the strongest ever recorded.

But around the month of July, the seismometer will go out.

Then the energy level of the robot will be recharged about once a day and it will be possible to continue taking pictures. At the end of 2022, the mission will be completely stopped.

The cause is the accumulation of Martian dust on its two solar panels, about 2.2 meters each.

After arriving on Mars in November 2018, InSight will soon run out of battery, as it is already running on only a tenth of its original charge.

The probe got an extension to its useful life about a year ago, when its mechanical arm was unexpectedly used to clear some of the dust from the solar panels, extending the mission.

In this maneuver, which was successful six times, the arm used its own dust to clean the panels: it collected some Martian soil and placed it on the robot so that the dust came out of the solar panels, partially cleaning its surface.

Bruce Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained this Tuesday at a press conference that due to costs, it was decided not to add anything specific to the robot to clean the panels because installing such a mechanism would leave “less to put in scientific instruments”. “. .

– “Scientific treasure” –

InSight is one of four missions currently underway on the Red Planet, along with the American Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, and the Chinese Zhurong rovers.

Since its arrival on Mars, its seismometer, made in France, has paved the way for great advances.

“The interior (of the Red Planet) was like a giant question mark,” said Banerdt, who worked on the InSight mission for more than a decade.

But thanks to this probe, “we were able to map the interior of Mars for the first time in history”.

Seismic waves, which vary according to the materials they pass through, provide a picture of the interior of the planet.

Scientists were able to confirm, for example, that the core of Mars is liquid and to determine the thickness of the Martian crust, which is less dense than previously thought and probably consists of three layers.

The magnitude 5 earthquake recorded in early May was much stronger than any other and approached what scientists thought was a maximum on Mars, although it was not considered a strong earthquake on earth.

“This earthquake will truly be a treasure chest of scientific information when we get it,” Banerdt said.

Earthquakes are caused, among other things, by the movement of tectonic plates, he explained, but they can also be caused when the earth’s crust moves due to temperature anomalies caused by its mantle.

It is this latter type of tremor that scientists believe occurs on Mars.

However, InSight did not perform well in all science operations, such as when its thermal sensor struggled to fit below the surface to measure the planet’s temperature due to the composition of the ground where the rover landed. .

But in light of the seismometer’s success, NASA plans to use the technique in other places in the future, said Lori Glaze, director of the agency’s planetary science division.

“We would really like to establish a full network on the Moon to really understand what’s going on there,” he said.

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