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Concern at NASA: Could one of its robots on Mars be out of commission?

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is progressively losing power and will likely end science operations later this summer. The team that operates the InSight spacecraft expects the lander to go offline in December, wrapping up a mission that has so far detected more than 1,300 marsquakes, or Martian earthquakes, the most recent being a magnitude 5 earthquake that occurred on March 4. May 2022.

Information gathered from those earthquakes has allowed scientists to measure the depth and composition of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core. In addition, InSight (short for Interior Exploration Through Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) has recorded crucial meteorological data and studied remnants of Mars’ ancient magnetic field. “InSight has transformed our understanding of the interior of rocky planets and laid the groundwork for future missions. We can apply what we’ve learned about the internal structure of Mars to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

InSight touched down on Mars on November 26, 2018. Equipped with a pair of solar panels, each measuring about 2.2 meters across, it was designed to accomplish the mission’s main science goals in its first year on Mars. (nearly two Earth years). Having achieved them, the spacecraft is now on an extended mission, and its solar panels have been producing less power as they continue to collect dust.

Due to reduced power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm into its resting position (called the “retreat posture”) for the last time later this month. Originally intended to deploy the lander’s seismometer and heat probe, the arm has played an unexpected role in the mission: in addition to being used to help bury the heat probe after sticky Martian soil presented challenges for the probe. , the team used the arm in an innovative way to remove dust from solar panels. As a result, the seismometer was able to operate more frequently than it otherwise would have, leading to new discoveries.

When InSight landed, the solar panels produced about 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day, or sol, enough to power an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes. Now, they’re producing roughly 500 watt-hours per sol, enough to power the same electric oven for just 10 minutes. Also, seasonal changes are starting at Elysium Planitia, InSight’s location on Mars. Over the next few months, there will be more dust in the air, reducing sunlight and power to the lander. While previous efforts removed some dust, the mission would need a more powerful dust-cleaning event, such as a “dust devil” (a passing whirlwind), to reverse the current trend.

“We were expecting a cleanup of dust like we saw several times with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, which is leading the mission. “That’s still possible, but the energy is low enough that our focus is to make the most of the science we can still collect,” he added.

If just 25% of InSight’s panels were blown away by the wind, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per sun, enough to continue collecting science data. However, at the current rate of declining power, InSight’s non-seismic instruments will rarely turn on after the end of May. Power is being prioritized for the lander’s seismometer, which will run at select times of the day, such as at night, when winds are low and earthquakes are easier for the seismometer to “hear.” The seismometer is expected to be off by late summer, concluding the science phase of the mission.

At that point, the lander will still have enough power to operate, take occasional pictures, and communicate with Earth. But the team hopes that around December, the power will be low enough that one day InSight will simply stop responding.

More about the mission

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (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 cruiser stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

Several European partners, including France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris).

Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and the University of Oxford in the UK; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Center for Space Research (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. The Center for Astrobiology (CAB) of Spain supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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