The operations team behind NASA’s Mars InSight lander is preparing to end their mission as the spacecraft approaches its final day on the job.
The robotic lander arrived on Mars on November 26, 2018 with a mission to study the planet’s interior. But after nearly four years, the lander has enough power for only a few more weeks.
“We’re pushing it to the very end,” said Liz Barrett, who leads science and instrument operations for the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.
This past summer, InSight’s power was less than 20 per cent of the original generating capacity. The operations team shut down most of InSight’s scientific instruments to keep the seismometer running. They even turned off the fault protection system that automatically shuts down the device if the lander’s power is dangerously low.
The seismometer was temporarily turned off after a dust storm covered the lander’s solar panels with even more dust.
“We’ll keep making science measurements as long as we can,” said Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of the InSight mission, in a statement. “We’re at Mars’ mercy. Weather on Mars is not rain and snow; weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
NASA will declare the mission over when InSight misses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars Relay Network orbiting the planet. A sudden mission-saving event, such as a strong gust of wind cleaning the panels, is possible but unlikely. NASA’s Deep Space Network will listen for a short time, just in case.
InSight failed to fully deploy its heat flow probe, which was supposed to burrow three to five metres underground. The device was still able to collect some measurements on soil heat transfer. The mission is still being considered a success, as data from the seismometer will be studied for decades.