NASA’s InSight rover nears end of scientific life but the work is just beginning
Since landing on Mars in late 2018, NASA’s InSight Mars lander has paved the way for groundbreaking discoveries that will be studied for decades, according to a team of researchers heading the interplanetary expedition. But the rover is gradually losing power, forcing scientists to prepare for the sunset of their mission sometime this summer.
Using an advanced suite of instruments attached to InSight – short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – NASA Jet Propulsion Lab leaders have spent the last year on Mars, equivalent to two Earth years, exploring the planet’s interior and geological activity to learn more about the formation and evolution of the red planet.
By December of this year, however, InSight is expected to have witnessed the last of the more than 1,300 marsquakes — the name for earthquakes on Mars — that have been detected during its 1,200 days on Martian soil.
Thankfully, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, explained Tuesday, May 17, the data already collected by scientists allows researchers to accurately measure Mars’ weather patterns, the composition of its planetary structure and remnants of the planet’s ancient magnetic field.
“The InSight mission has really just been an incredible mission for us and it’s given us a glimpse of Mars that we couldn’t get from any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet,” Glaze said during a call with her peers, media and viewers from around the globe.
“And it’s not just telling us information about Mars,” Glaze added, “but broadening our planetary science understanding and helping us think differently about other rocky planets across the solar system and beyond.”
Just this month, a magnitude 5 marsquake rocked the InSight Rover’s seismometer, marking the largest quake ever observed on another planet and highlighting the Red Planet still has much to show the team of observers.
Unfortunately, the large quake comes as Mars enters winter, a time when there’s more dust in the air and reduced hours of available sunlight, according to researchers, which poses a problem for two seven-feet wide solar panels that are tasked with powering the rover.
When InSight first landed on Martian soil the rover had the ability to power a conventional home oven for 100 minutes, InSight deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia analogized Tuesday.
“Nowadays, we could probably run that approximately 10 minutes max,” Zamora Garcia said. “So that’ll give you a good understanding of how much energy has decreased.”
Thanks to a collective of genius minds at JPL, however, team leaders have repeatedly found ways to lift the weight of the Martian world off of the solar panels by using a robotic arm to tilt the device — allowing the seismometer to continue making inaugural discoveries.
Having worked to land a rover on Mars for more than a decade, InSight’s Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt said he feels a personal connection to the rover he shares a birthday with.
And though he hasn’t had much time to reflect on the journey in space since finding creative solutions to address the power problem is a full-time job, Banerdt assured the public that he is proud of the legacy InSight is leaving behind.
“InSight is the first mission that’s shone a light inside of Mars and shown us what the rest of the Mars looks like,” Banerdt said, noting he holds out hope the mission will continue if a dust devil finds a way near the rover. After all, the mission has already outlasted its proposed length even when Mars’ climate didn’t always want to cooperate with the rover’s available technologies.
But so is life in space, according to Banerdt, who compared constructing a rover to the likes of buying a car.
“Whenever you put together a mission like this everything is a compromise,” he said. “I would love to have a top end Audi or something like that,” complete with wipers to remove sand or a generator to permanently power InSight.
“But my budgets more in the Volkswagen range,” Banerdt joked. “And, you know, if we put more money into the solar array we would have less to put into the science instruments, so we tried to find the right balance.”
No matter what happens though, an excited Banerdt added on Tuesday’s call, scientists will be plenty occupied in the coming months dissecting models that depict, for the first time in history, the core, mantle and crust of Mars.
Others will focus on brainstorming clever ways to keep solar panels and rover pieces clear from Martian dust in the future.
“So scientists are going to be very busy even for another probably half year after the the spacecraft itself is no longer operating,” Banerdt said. “But that’s just the beginning” since the data will be readily available to the entire scientific community.
And he’s not alone in hoping the work completed by researchers today will lead to more missions tomorrow.
“We’ve made incredible advances in understanding the interior of Mars that are not likely to be improved for decades,” Glaze said. “So as you kind of look at the sunset as viewed from InSight, we will think forward to the sunset of the spacecraft but not the sunset of the science to come.”