NASA is preparing to say ‘goodbye’ to the InSight spacecraft – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander
A closer look at what goes into completing a mission as the spacecraft’s power continues to decline.
The day is approaching when NASA Mars InSight lander will fall silent, ending its history-making mission of uncovering the secrets of the Red Planet’s interior. The spacecraft’s power output continues to decline as wind-blown dust on the solar panels thickens, so the team has taken steps to continue as long as possible on the remaining power. The end is expected to come in the next few weeks.
But even as the tight-knit operations team of 25 to 30 members — a small group compared to other Mars missions — continues to get the most out of InSight (short for Interior Exploration using seismic surveys, geodesy and heat transport), they’ve also begun to take steps to complete the mission.
Here’s a sneak peek at what it looks like.
The most important of the final steps with the InSight mission is to store its reams of data and make it accessible to researchers around the world. Data from the lander provided details about Mars inner layersits liquid core, the surprisingly volatile remnants below the surface of its largely extinct magnetic field, the weather on this part of Mars, and lots of earthquake activity.
InSight’s seismometerprovided by France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes since the lander landed in November 2018, the largest measurement magnitude 5. It is even recorded earthquakes of meteoroid impact. Observing how the seismic waves from those quakes change as they travel across the planet offers invaluable insight into the interior of Mars, but also provides a better understanding of how all rocky worlds form, including Earth and its moon.
“Finally, we can see Mars as a planet with layers, different thicknesses, compositions,” said Bruce Bannerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re starting to really tease the details. Now it’s not just this enigma; 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 to an international archive run by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, which houses “all of the Earth’s seismic network data locations,” said JPL’s Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator. “Now we have one on Mars.”
Smrekar said the data is expected to continue to yield discoveries for decades.
Earlier this summer, the lander had so little power left that the mission shut down all of InSight’s other science instruments to for the seismometer to work. They even turned off the fail-safe system that would otherwise automatically shut down the seismometer if the system detected that the lander’s power output was dangerously low.
“We’re down to less than 20% of our original production capacity,” Bannerdt said. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments 24 hours a day.”
Recently, after a regional dust storm left 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 — although the mission expects the lander to have enough power for just a few more weeks.
Of the seismometer’s array of sensors, only the most sensitive were still working, said Liz Barrett, who leads science and instrument operations for the team at JPL, adding, “We’re pushing it to the very end.”
Packing Up Twin
A silent member of the team is ForeSight, the InSight’s full-size engineering model at JPL In-Situ Instrument Laboratory. Engineers used ForeSight to practice how InSight would place science instruments on the Martian surface using the lander’s robotic arm, testing techniques to bring the lander’s thermal probe into the sticky Martian soiland develop ways to reduce noise picked up a seismometer.
ForeSight will be created and placed in the repository. “We will pack it with great care,” Bannerdt said. “It’s been a great tool, a great companion for us in this whole mission.”
Declaring the end of the mission
NASA will declare the mission complete when InSight misses two consecutive communications sessions with the Mars-orbiting spacecraft, in part Mars Relay Network – but only if the cause of the missed communication is the lander itself, said network manager Roy Gladden of JPL. Then, 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. While a mission-saving event—say, a strong gust of wind clearing the panels—hasn’t been ruled out, it’s considered unlikely.
In the meantime, as long as InSight is in contact, the team will continue to collect data. “We will continue to make scientific measurements as long as we can,” Bannerdt said. “We are at the mercy of Mars. The weather on Mars is not rain and snow; weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
More about the mission
JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, 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 supports spacecraft operations for the mission.
A number of European partners, including the French Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Space Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures (SIX) instrument to NASA, with principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). A significant contribution to SEIS came from IPGP; Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided a package of heat flow and physical properties (HP3) instrument, with a significant contribution from the Center for Space Research (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronomy in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors, and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) supplied the passive laser reflector.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Written by Pat Brennan
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