After nearly four years spent on the Martian surface, NASA’s InSight lander is coming to the end of its life as the spacecraft’s power generation continues to decline because of dust blown on the lander’s solar panels. The InSight team is now taking steps to make sure the lander continues working as long as possible with what power remains.
Preserving InSight’s Data
One of the most important final steps of the InSight mission is to make sure that the treasure of data with the lander is stored properly and made accessible to researchers around the world. The InSight lander has gathered data about the interior layers of Mars, its liquid core, the remnants beneath the surface of its nearly-extinct magnetic field, Martian weather, and on marsquakes.
“Finally, we can see Mars as a planet with layers, with different thicknesses, compositions. We’re starting to really tease out the details. Now it’s not just this enigma; it’s actually a living, breathing planet,” said Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press statement. Banerdt is the principal investigator of the mission.
Managing InSight’s power at its final stage
Earlier this year, the lander’s power reserves were so low that NASA turned off all the science instruments on board so that they can keep the seismometer running. The space agency also had to shut down the fault protection system that would have shut down the seismometer when it detected the lander was low on power.
According to Banerdt, the lander is now generating less than 20 per cent of its initial power generation capacity, which means that the InSight mission team cannot afford to run the lander’s instruments around the clock.
More recently, when the InSight lander’s problems were made worse by a “continent-sized” dust storm on the planet, the team had switched off the seismometer altogether to save power. The seismometer began collecting data again after the storm was over. But the lander is only expected to have enough power to work for a few more weeks.
InSight’s death certificate
NASA will declare the InSight mission over when the lander misses two consecutive communication sessions with a spacecraft that is orbiting Mars. After this, the agency’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen for signals for a short time.
This is in case a mission-saving event happens, like, say, a strong gust of wind that cleans the dust off the panel. While such an event is not out of the question, it is considered unlikely, according to NASA.
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