Saying goodbye to NASA’s InSight lander before it’s buried in Martian dust

Saying goodbye to NASA’s InSight lander before it’s buried in Martian dust

One of NASA’s most successful Martian missions is ending. After four years of fascinating scientific exploration, NASA’s Insight Mars Lander has entered its final days. It’s almost time for the end, as thick layers martian dust block the craft’s solar panels.

Touching down on Mars in 2018, InSight has been the first robotic lander to peer deep within the planet’s interior in order to study its crust, mantle, and core. Since then, the lander has provided valuable scientific data and sharp images of Mars’ surface to scientists on Earth. The mission used a variety of powerful tools to answer key questions about how rocky worlds form and evolve in the solar system and beyond.

To date, one of the rover’s greatest achievements was detecting and recording more than 1,300 “Marsquakes,” the Martian equivalent of earthquakes, in a bid to determine the planet’s level of tectonic activity. The craft also listened out for meteorites affecting the planet during its tenure. Although the craft is still active, NASA scientists expect that the mission will be terminated within the next few weeks. It is heartbreaking to see InSight go dark, but the lander’s death shouldn’t be surprising. According to the agency, the craft has already surpassed its original two-year mission timeframe.

a cake shaped like the planet mars with a birthday candle number 1 on top
NASA’s InSight lander team enjoyed a Mars-shaped cake on the first anniversary of the spacecraft’s November 26, 2018, landing. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mission will officially end when the lander misses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars Relay Network, a constellation of five spacecraft that orbit the planet and transmit commands and data between Earth and Mars missions on the ground. Afterwards, another telecommunications system, NASA’s Deep Space Network, will tune in for a while, just to make sure the final curtain has truly fallen. Still, even though all missions come to an end sooner or later, Mark Panning, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the project scientist for the InSight Mission, says this one will forever hold a place in his heart.

“InSight is the thing that brought me to space,” he said. “Scientifically speaking I am over the moon over what we’ve done over Mars.” However, getting a complete account of InSight’s life opens up new questions about how it survived Martian dust, if its robotic corpse could possibly be rescued, as well as what will happen all of its data.

In preparation for the mission’s final farewell here are some burning questions.

Dust dooms all

The inevitable dust storms on Mars are a problem if you want the surface to be conquered. Dust storms can be very destructive, all-consuming, and sometimes very problematic on Mars.

In 2018, one of these storms darkened the sky for so long, it eventually felled NASA’s Opportunity rover, one of the agency’s oldest and most successful Mars missions. “Oppy,” as the bot was fondly called, was pronounced dead after scientists who hoped to revive the craft could no longer get in contact with it. As for InSight, the mission has far exceeded expectations in dealing with its own fair share of challenges, says Emily Stough, a senior engineer at JPL and an uplink lead, someone who helps coordinate the team’s mission.

a collage of three images of meteor impacts on mars
Three meteoroid impacts that were detected by the seismometer on NASA’s InSight lander and captured by the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter using its HiRISE camera. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

In previous attempts to survive these storms, InSight once put itself in safe mode to conserve its battery after dust stopped the sunlight from reaching its solar panels. Additionally, in May of this year, the craft’s power was so low, the mission had to suspend all of InSight’s other science instruments just to ensure the rover had enough juice to keep running its seismometer–a round dome-shaped instrument that like a stethoscope, sits on the surface, sensing seismic vibrations. NASA originally designed InSight’s solar panels to generate more energy than the craft required at the start of its mission.

[Related: NASA’s InSight lander is basically about to play an epic claw game on Mars]

But why aren’t Mars mission equipped with the ability remove any potentially life-threatening obstructions?

The historical absence of windshield wiper-esque devices on Martian vehicles comes down to cost, efficiency and risk. Stough also notes that adding technical components to craft designs could pose a threat to mission goals. She says that spacecraft design is all about simplicity. “The more complicated something is, the greater chance it will fail .”

Could InSight rise again?

After its passing, InSight will be survived by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. Though the veteran craft Curiosity is puttering roughly 373 miles away from InSight, scientists say a rescue mission isn’t likely. Mainly, because the distance between them is even farther than the total distance Curiosity has traveled since the mission first touched down in 2012.

Besides current American efforts, another notable craft, China’s Zhurong rover, is also still in operation, exploring a region of the red planet called Utopia Planitia as it seeks to learn more about what Mars looked like in the past.

a circular solar panel is covered in red dust on mars
NASA’s InSight Mars lander captured this image of one of its dust-covered solar panels on April 24, 2022. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When InSight’s solar panels are completely obscured, NASA currently has no plans to conduct what the agency calls “heroic measures” to find a way to reconnect and rescue the craft, save a lucky gust of wind that might sweep the offending particles off enough for InSight to begin charging again. Panning believes that there is a possibility that the craft could wake up.

[Related: Marsquakes reveal the red planet is way more radioactive than we thought]

” The lander was actually designed so it can return,” Panning states. There could be a day when enough dust is removed for InSight’s system to turn itself on again, but this scenario is unlikely at the moment.

” We know what we should listen for, but we don’t count on that,” Panning states.

Data dump

As long as InSight mission scientists can communicate with them, the craft will continue to move along, taking the final measurements and photos. All of its scientific data, which was already being periodically released to the public, will most likely later be collected in an event catalog with a summary of all the lander’s activities. InSight’s data will serve as a final memento morti. It will be the scientific obituary that scientists hope future generations can access and use for their own research and experiments.

” The spacecraft can go down, but the science keeps giving,” says Stough.

How it began, and how it’s progressing.

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