One of NASA’s finest Martian missions is giving up the ghost. After four years of captivating scientific exploration, NASA’s Insight Mars Lander is entering its final days of operation. Losing power as thick layers of Martian dust block the craft’s solar panels, it’s almost time to say goodbye.
Touching down on Mars in 2018, InSight has been the first robotic lander to peer deep within the planet’s interior in order to study its crust, mantle, and core. The lander has since delivered scores of valuable scientific data and crisp images of the Martian surface back to scientists on Earth. Using an assemblage of powerful tools, the mission has helped answer key questions about how rocky planets both form and evolve in our solar system and far beyond it.
To date, one of the rover’s greatest achievements was detecting and recording more than 1,300 “Marsquakes,” the Martian equivalent of earthquakes, in a bid to determine the planet’s level of tectonic activity. During its tenure, the craft even listened for meteorites impacting the planet. Though the resilient craft is currently still active, NASA scientists predict that the mission will end sometime in the next few weeks. As heartbreaking as it is to see InSight fall silent, the lander’s demise doesn’t come as a surprise. By the agency’s standards, the craft has already exceeded its original two-year mission timeline.
The mission will officially end when the lander misses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars Relay Network, a constellation of five spacecraft that orbit the planet and transmit commands and data between Earth and Mars missions on the ground. Afterwards, another telecommunications system, NASA’s Deep Space Network, will tune in for a while, just to make sure the final curtain has truly fallen. Still, even though all missions come to an end sooner or later, Mark Panning, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the project scientist for the InSight Mission, says this one will forever hold a place in his heart.
“InSight will always be the thing that introduced me to space,” he says. “Scientifically speaking, I am over the moon about what we’ve done over Mars.” But in getting a full account of InSight’s life, its expiration opens up new questions about what it takes to survive Martian dust, whether its robotic corpse could be rescued, and what will happen to all of its data.
In preparation for the mission’s final farewell, here are some of those burning questions answered.
Dust dooms all
Dealing with dust is an inevitable inconvenience if you want to conquer the Martian surface. Dust storms on Mars can be all-consuming, extremely powerful, and, at times, very problematic.
In 2018, one of these storms darkened the sky for so long, it eventually felled NASA’s Opportunity rover, one of the agency’s oldest and most successful Mars missions. “Oppy,” as the bot was fondly called, was pronounced dead after scientists who hoped to revive the craft could no longer get in contact with it. As for InSight, the mission has far exceeded expectations in dealing with its own fair share of challenges, says Emily Stough, a senior engineer at JPL and an uplink lead, someone who helps coordinate the team’s mission.
In previous attempts to survive these storms, InSight once put itself in safe mode to conserve its battery after dust stopped the sunlight from reaching its solar panels. Additionally, in May of this year, the craft’s power was so low, the mission had to suspend all of InSight’s other science instruments just to ensure the rover had enough juice to keep running its seismometer—a round dome-shaped instrument that like a stethoscope, sits on the surface, sensing seismic vibrations. To combat the dust’s negative effect, NASA originally made InSight’s solar panels so large that they were generating several times the energy the craft needed at the beginning of its mission.
But why aren’t Mars missions equipped with the ability to wipe away any potentially life-ending obstructions?
The historical lack of any windshield wiper-esque device on a Martian vehicle comes down to cost, efficiency, and potential risk, says Stough, who notes that adding unnecessary technical components to a craft’s design could endanger a mission’s goals. “One of the things with spacecraft design that we’re always pushing for is to keep things simple,” she says. “The more complex something is, the more risky it is that it’s going to fail.”
Could InSight rise again?
After its passing, InSight will be survived by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. Though the veteran craft Curiosity is puttering roughly 373 miles away from InSight, scientists say a rescue mission isn’t likely. Mainly, because the distance between them is even farther than the total distance Curiosity has traveled since the mission first touched down in 2012.
Besides current American efforts, another notable craft, China’s Zhurong rover, is also still in operation, exploring a region of the red planet called Utopia Planitia as it seeks to learn more about what Mars looked like in the past.
When InSight’s solar panels are completely obscured, NASA currently has no plans to conduct what the agency calls “heroic measures” to find a way to reconnect and rescue the craft, save a lucky gust of wind that might sweep the offending particles off enough for InSight to begin charging again. But Panning says that the possibility for the craft to wake up does exist.
“The lander itself was actually engineered so that it can come back,” Panning says. Like a computerized Frankenstein’s monster, there could come a day when enough dust is cleared for InSight to turn itself back on, but at the moment, such a scenario is as unlikely as a real zombie uprising.
”We know what we need to listen for if that eventuality happens, but we’re of course not counting on that,” Panning says.
As long as mission scientists are able to communicate with InSight, the craft will certainly keep chugging along, continuing to take the last of its measurements and photos. All of its scientific data, which was already being periodically released to the public, will most likely later be collected in an event catalog with a summary of all the lander’s activities. Acting as a final memento mori, InSight’s data will be the scientific obituary that scientists today hope future generations access and use to conduct their own experiments and studies.
“The spacecraft can die, but the science kind of keeps on giving,“ says Stough.
How it started, how it’s going.