NASA announced on Tuesday that NASA’s InSight lander will complete its science mission this summer and be fully decommissioned by the end of the year after losing its power supply. As the mission draws to a close, the legacy of the lunar module is just beginning to take shape as scientists examine the unprecedented data InSight has collected on Mars’ deep interior, weather, and magnetic field.
“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was a huge question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters Tuesday. “We only had a very fuzzy picture of what’s going on inside Mars. Now we can actually draw a quantitatively precise picture.”
And although InSight will be phased out this year as it loses power, it’s still collecting valuable data. On May 4, InSight detected a magnitude 5 marsquake – the strongest on record, with a magnitude of 10.
Thanks to the data collected by InSight, scientists can estimate the thickness of the Martian crust to within 10 km and the size of the Martian core to within 50 km.
This information, Banerdt says, “now allows us to validate our models of planet formation and study how the planets evolved from a cloud of dust that orbited the Sun.”
With the new data, Banerdt says, “we have already been able to rule out two-thirds of the planet-forming models that exist simply by looking at the size and density of the core and the thickness of the crust.”
Since landing on Mars in November 2018, InSight – short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – has been using a seismometer to measure the waves moving through the interior of the planet. InSight also brought a probe to Mars designed to measure the temperature and heat flux inside the planet. However, the device, nicknamed the Mole, encountered an unexpected layer of crust in the Martian soil, preventing it from penetrating far enough down to make the planned measurements.
The problems with the mole were “probably the biggest disappointment of the mission,” Banerdt said. Still, according to Banerdt, the main goals that his team had set for InSight were all achieved. In fact, the mission’s primary science goals have already been achieved in its first Martian year (nearly two Earth years), and the lander is now on an expanded mission.
The data collected over the past three and a half years, as well as the data that InSight continues to collect, are all archived and available to the entire scientific community. According to Banerdt, they should be “valuable for the coming decades”.
While InSight is still collecting data, the lander has become very dusty. It’s so dirty that its two solar panels, which are about one meter wide, produce significantly less electricity than they originally did. At the start of the mission, InSight’s solar cells were producing about 5,000 watt-hours per Martian day, or sol – enough to power an electric furnace for one hour and 40 minutes. Now they produce about 500 watt hours per sol – enough to run the same electric stove for just 10 minutes.
In addition, the seasonal changes on Mars will make it even harder for solar panels to produce electricity. There will be more dust in the air over the next few months, reducing solar radiation.
Therefore, NASA will operate the seismometer continuously this spring until it is shut down towards the end of the summer. Meanwhile, InSight’s robotic arm will soon be placed in a resting position, dubbed ‘rest’, that will allow it to take photos. When running at very low power, InSight can still capture a few images until it shuts down completely at the end of the year.
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