Project officials revealed on May 17 that NASA’s InSight Mars lander mission is going to most likely end before the end of the year as the spacecraft’s power levels continue to drop. The mission’s science operations are going to likely terminate in July, according to project organizers, as the outcome of the spacecraft’s two dust-coated solar panels falls below crucial thresholds. The power decrease is being exacerbated by rising dust concentrations in the atmosphere due to seasonal changes.
Controllers will begin turning off certain science equipment in the coming weeks, while also placing the lander’s robotic arm in a “retirement posture,” with the camera on it pointing at the lander’s principal sensor, a seismometer. This summer, the seismometer, which has been functioning continuously for the duration of the mission, will switch to intermittent operations to save power before closing down entirely later this summer.
According to Kathya Zamora Garcia, who is the InSight deputy project manager, the seismometer shutdown, which would bring the lander’s science operations to a close, could happen as early as mid-July. Until late this year, when power levels fall below what’s required to operate completely, the project intends to retain sporadic contact, including the infrequent image from the camera.
That timeframe has some ambiguity, including the possibility that the lander will be able to operate for longer. Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at JPL, said, “We’re in an operational regime we’ve never been in before. We don’t know how well the spaceship will perform when the power goes down. At almost every turn on Mars, it has exceeded our expectations. It could go on for a little longer.
For some time, the team has warned that as dust accumulated on the lander’s solar panels, the levels of power would drop, jeopardizing the mission. Banerdt stated during a February advisory committee meeting that power levels would decrease below what is required to run science equipment in May or June, and below “survivability” for the lander by the end of the year.
A “cleaning event,” like a wind gust or a dust devil, was anticipated by Banerdt and others to clear dust from the panels. At the time of landing, the panels produced 5,000 watt-hours of electricity per Martian day, but just a tenth of that presently. Even a minor cleaning operation could keep the mission running.
Engineers used the robotic arm to gather up regolith and put it near the solar arrays, enabling the wind to start picking up grains as well as bounce them off the arrays, shaking free particles in the process. The lander’s instruments were able to operate for an additional 4 to 6 weeks as a result of the brief power boosts, according to Garcia.