Our ‘Marsquake’ Mission On The Red Planet Will Bite The Dust By Mid-July Says NASA

When NASA sent its InSight lander to Mars in 2018 it knew it may have to land during a dust storm. Its heat shield was thick to withstand being “sandblasted” by suspended dust and it had a super-strong parachute to cope with the extra air resistance during a dust storm.

In the event it landed safely in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars —the flattest area of the red planet nicknamed the “parking lot”—and has been measuring “marsquakes” ever since.

However, the dust devils that NASA had assumed would frequently blow over it haven’t materialized and, as a consequence, InSight is now quickly being covered in red Martian dust.

As dust accumulates on its solar panels it’s experiencing declining power. It even had to be switched-off on May 7 after a massive drop in power.

It’s now in terminal decline. When it arrived InSight’s solar panels were collecting about 5,000 Watt hours per Martian day. It’s now about a tenth of that and falling. “When we first landed we could run the equivalent of an electric over for about 1 hour 40 minutes, but nowadays it’s about 10 minutes maximum—that’s how much InSight’s energy is decreased,” said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), during a NASA teleconference on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

For InSight, death will come very soon. “Based on our current energy level, I’m going to approximate mid-July, maybe early July,” she said.

The plan now is to use what energy is left to run the lander’s seismometer continuously over the next couple weeks, then for six or 12 hours per Martian day thereafter, if energy levels allow.

The only way it can reach the end of 2022 is if a passing whirlwind cleans its solar panels. Conversely, another major dust storm could kill it off.

“We accurately predicted the rate of dust accumulation based on previous missions, but we’d hoped that every once in a while the panels might get cleaned off by particularly high winds or perhaps a dust devil, as happened to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

“There are lots of dust devils around us—InSight has been able to sense several thousand close by—but none of them have quite got dead-on enough to blow the the dust off the panels,” said Banerdt. “It could still happen, but we’re not hopeful.”

If just 25% of InSight’s panels were swept clean by the wind, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per sol, which would be enough to continue science operations.

Being covered in dust is a fate that eventually befalls most NASA missions that land on Mars. NASA’s Opportunity rover—nicknamed “Oppy” and which roamed the red planet for 15 years—was eventually killed-off in 2018 by a series of dust storms that ultimately drained its batteries beyond recovery.

Dust storms reduce the amount of sunlight that gets to solar panels, but can also leave a layer of dust on those solar panels, which reduces their effectiveness. To confound the problem, Mars is currently getting farther from the Sun during its two Earth-year orbit. It’s during this winter period that there’s the most dust in the atmosphere.

You can see the accumulation of dust on InSight lander yourself in raw images sent back to Earth from Mars in which its instruments appear to be covered in red dust.

On January 7, 2022 InSight was caught in a dust storm and had to be put into “safe mode” by NASA engineers because of the reduced sunlight reaching its solar panels. All but essential functions were suspended.

In mid-2021 NASA engineers experimented with using a scoop on the lander’s robotic arm to clean a bit of dust from one of its solar panels by trickling sand in the wind. It worked and boosted InSight’s batteries—and was repeated six times —but it’s an energy-intensive manoeuver that can’t be repeated often. In fact, that robotic arm will soon go into retirement pose so it can take a few more photos.

Only last week NASA reported that InSight had detected the biggest marsquake so far—and therefore the biggest quake ever recorded off-Earth. An estimated magnitude 5 marsquake occurred on May 4, 2022, the latest in a total—so far—of 1,313 quakes detected by the mission.

It’s the largest detected since a magnitude 4.2 marsquake on August 25, 2021. “Since we set our seismometer down in December 2018, we’ve been waiting for ‘the big one,’” said Banerdt. “This quake is sure to provide a view into the planet like no other.”

InSight launched on May 2018 and landed on Mars in November 2018 to study Mars’ its crust, mantle, and core. Its mission is to:

  • discover how a rocky body forms and evolves to become a planet.
  • investigate the interior structure and composition of Mars.
  • determine the rate of Martian tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

InSight’s original mission ended in December 2020, but NASA extended the mission for two years.

However, InSight’s seismic legacy will continue. “We’ve made incredible advanced advances in our understanding the interior of Mars and that are not likely to be improved for decades,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re approaching the sunset of the spacecraft, but not the sunset of the science that is to come.”

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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