Martian weather gave the lander extra time to catch Martian earthquakes.
NASA’s InSight lander landed on Mars In November 2018, use tools designed to help scientists gain insight into the Red Planet. InSight runs on sunlight, and dust coats its solar panels, which allows the lander to generate only one-tenth the energy it could get as a newcomer to Mars.Scientists expect the lander to out of battery By the end of summer, InSight is still working to acquire scientific data, and will likely continue to do so in the coming months — possibly even into January.
“However, if we had a dust storm or something like that, then it could be faster,” InSight program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who manages the mission, told Space.com. “We’re so low right now that if we get any kind of Martian weather, that could spell the end of the mission.”
related: NASA’s Mars InSight lander snaps dusty ‘final selfie’ as power drops
How much electricity InSight can generate each day, or sol, depends on two factors: the dust that accumulates on its solar panels and Mars atmosphere. Both of these factors can cause trouble during a dust storm.
Many Mars explorers face the same problem: although will and curiosity Rover uses nuclear power, and their predecessors are twins Spirit and Chance rovers all struggle with dust buildup, and Dust storm ends Opportunity mission.
But Spirit and Opportunity found unexpected help from a “cleanup campaign,” which may have been a gust of wind — ironically, a dust storm — that removed dust and boosted power generation. InSight didn’t have that kind of luck, trying to shake off dust and mimic the cleaning activity by drizzling near the panel didn’t do much.
So as early as June 2021, Insights estimated The lander will be forced to shut down this spring. By May, they thought the spacecraft could continue to operate until late summer, and implemented a mode designed to prioritize powering the seismometers. The team also reset InSight’s rules to avoid the protective “safe mode” the spacecraft typically goes into when something goes wrong — it’ll work fine until it doesn’t.
But the lander is still working. “We’ve changed our operations a little bit since then, and we’ve also had some Martian weather, which is lucky for us because we haven’t had any big dust storms or anything,” Scott said.
Now, InSight is entering a season when scientists typically see some regional dust storms, which they believe will hasten the lander’s demise. But the start of the season was milder than in the past, giving InSight a momentary sigh of relief.
“We kind of expected that there would be some regional dust storms that would cause us problems,” Scott said. “But looking at the weather this year, those who are forecasting Martian weather, they believe we won’t see any regional storms in the next few weeks.”
When InSight lands, each sol can generate 5,000 watt-hours (more Earth sky). Since then, the power has declined. “Every time there’s a storm or something on Mars, it’s going down,” Scott said. He added that some storms disrupted production by 100 watt-hours, and some even exceeded 1,000 watt-hours. “It depends on the size of the storm.”
The spacecraft currently produces about 400 watt-hours of electricity per sol, less than one-tenth of its landing capacity. The lander needs to generate about 300 watt-hours per sol to keep the seismometers, communications and basic functions running, Scott said.
One day, when the lander doesn’t hit it, it will put itself in what mission personnel call a “death bus” as the spacecraft quietly drains its last battery. “It gets to the point where the battery fails and can’t restart on its own,” Scott said.
Mission crews aren’t sure how long the final battery drain will last, but it could be years. In the meantime, it’s highly unlikely that a gust of friendly wind could remove enough dust to get the solar panels back to work.
“Based on what we’ve seen, we think there’s a 10 percent chance that this will happen some time before the battery actually fails,” Scott said. “So once we got into the death bus, that was pretty much the end of the mission.”
But even as the “death bus” loomed, the team struggled to get every piece of data from InSight. Mission scientists have determined that the lander can make eight hours of observations and still produce useful data. Currently, the lander takes about half a day to charge and half a day to run the seismometer. As power supplies are reduced, this balance will shift until the lander observes for eight hours at a time, then requires several sols to recharge between sessions.
“We’re still having earthquakes; we can still see what’s going on in the seismometers,” Scott said, noting that the lander had an earthquake in late August.
“We want this to continue until the end of the mission,” he said. “We just worked really hard to get as much science as possible out of the vehicle, right to the end, until it really died.”