As NASA announced on Tuesday, the NASA Mars Lander InSighIt completes its science mission this summer and is completely out of service by the end of the year, having lost its power source. As the mission nears its end, the lunar module’s legacy is just beginning to take shape as scientists examine the unprecedented data InSight has collected about Mars’ inner depth, weather and magnetic field.
“Before Insight, the interior of Mars was a big question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told reporters Tuesday. “We just had a very vague picture of what’s going on inside Mars. Now we can actually paint a quantitatively accurate picture.”
And although InSight will be phased out this year as it loses ground, it still collects valuable data. On May 4, InSight detected a magnitude 5 earthquake – the most powerful on record, with a magnitude of 10.
Thanks to the data collected by InSight, scientists can estimate the thickness of the Martian crust within 10 kilometers and the size of the Martian core within 50 kilometers.
This information “now allows us to validate our models of planet formation and study how planets evolved from a cloud of dust orbiting the sun,” Banerdt says.
With the new data, Bannerdt says, “we’ve already been able to rule out two-thirds of existing planet formation models simply by looking at the size and density of the core and thickness of the crust.”
Since landing on Mars in November 2018, InSight — an acronym for Inland Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Thermal Transport — has been using a seismometer to measure waves moving through the planet’s interior. InSight has also brought a probe to Mars designed to measure the temperature and heat flow inside the planet. However, the instrument, nicknamed Mole, encountered an unexpected layer of crust in Martian soil, which prevented it from penetrating far enough to make the planned measurements.
The problems with the mole, Bannerdt said, “was probably the biggest disappointment of the mission.” However, according to Bannerdt, all of the major goals his team set for InSight have been achieved. In fact, the mission’s primary science goals have already been achieved in its first Mars year (nearly two years on Earth), and the lander is now on an extended mission.
Data collected over the past three and a half years, as well as data that InSight continues to collect, are all archived and available to the entire scientific community. According to Banerdt, it should be “valuable for decades to come.”
While InSight is still collecting data, the probe has become very dusty. It is so dirty that its two solar panels, which are about one meter wide, produce much less electricity than they originally did. At the start of the mission, InSight’s solar cells were producing about 5,000 watt-hours per Sol, or Sol – enough to power an electric furnace for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Now they produce about 500 watt-hours per Martian day – enough to power the same electric stove for just 10 minutes.
In addition, seasonal changes on Mars will make it difficult 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 shuts down at the end of summer. Meanwhile, InSight’s robotic arm will soon be placed in a resting position, dubbed “rest,” which will allow it to take pictures. When running at very low power, InSight can still take some photos until it is turned off completely at the end of the year.
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