This summer is over for NASA’s Insight probe on Mars

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at 11:54 pm

After about four years of exploring the bowels of Mars, the InSight probe will have to end operations this summer, due to dust accumulating on its solar panels.

In an announcement Tuesday, NASA said the data collected will continue to be used by scientists around the world for many years to continue improving our understanding of planet formation.

Remarkably equipped with an ultra-sensitive seismometer, InSight has recorded more than 1,300 “Mars earthquakes,” including one with a magnitude of 5 just two weeks ago, the largest to date.

A great bonus before the end of the applause: around July, the seismometer will be turned off. The probe’s power level will then be checked once a day, and some pictures may still be taken. Then by the end of 2022, the mission will stop altogether.

The reason: Martian dust accumulated on two solar panels over a period of months, each about 2.2 meters wide. InSight, which already runs on only a tenth of the power it had every day initially, will soon find its batteries empty.

The speed of dust accumulation turned out to be somewhat in line with what was previously estimated by NASA teams.

About a year ago, they did a rather surprising cleanup using the same dust. The robot’s arm had dug into the ground, gently dropping Martian soil over the robot. And so the wind carried part of the solar panels, releasing a little of their surface. This technique made it possible to prolong the task.

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Why is there nothing on board to wash the panels directly? For questions about costs, answered by Bruce Banerdt at a press conference Tuesday, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Such a mechanism would have already encroached upon the budget allocated to scientific instruments.

– ‘Information treasure’ –

InSight, one of the four robots currently on the Red Planet — along with the persistent American rovers and Curiosity, and China’s Zhurong — reached Mars in November 2018.

Since then, the seismometer, made in France, has made significant progress.

Mr Bannerdt, who has worked on the mission for more than ten years, explained that the interior of Mars has so far been a “big question mark”. But thanks to InSight, “for the first time in history, we’ve been able to map the interior of Mars.”

The seismic waves, which vary according to the materials they pass through, provide a picture of the bowels of the planet.

For example, scientists have been able to confirm that the Martian core is indeed liquid, and determine the thickness of the Martian crust, which is less dense than previously imagined and may consist of three layers.

In addition, at the beginning of May, a shock much greater than all previous shocks was recorded. At a size of 5, it wouldn’t have been huge on Earth, but it turned out to be close to what scientists thought they’d observed on Mars at most.

“This shocker is going to be a treasure trove of scientific information when we really look at it,” Bruce Banerdt said.

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He explained that earthquakes on our planet are notably caused by plate tectonics, but not only. In particular, the Earth’s crust can move under the influence of temperature deviations caused by the mantle beneath it. Scientists believe they are dealing with this type of vibration on Mars.

The InSight mission also faced a failure: an instrument had to be buried a few meters below the surface to measure the planet’s temperature. But due to the configuration of the land where the robot landed, this “mole” could not sink as expected.

Either way, given the seismometer’s success, NASA is considering using this technology elsewhere in the future, said Laurie Glaese, director of planetary sciences: “We would very much like to create a whole network on the Moon, to really understand what’s going on here.”

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