it’s the beginning of the end for the Mars probe InSight…

The main actor of this memorable mission will soon give up the ghost. The occasion for a little tribute to this device, which is certainly less photogenic than Perseverance and Ingenuity, but which has nevertheless produced superb results.

Since its arrival on Mars in 2018, the Mars probe InSight has established itself as a formidable ally for NASA troops. But after years of probing the Red Planet’s weather and seismic activity, the craft begins to choke; and unfortunately, NASA expects it to breathe its last during the summer.

The end of a great scientific adventure for planetary scientists around the world. Indeed, this machine has more or less become the best friend of planetary scientists. He notably played the role of number one meteorologist of Elon Musk’s beloved planet; he records daily the temperature, wind speed and atmospheric pressure. Elements that actively contribute to the establishment of the planet’s climate models.

But on the side of the general public, InSight is best known for another part of its activity, namely its seismographic activity. Indeed, it is equipped with a seismometer which has already enabled it to record no less than 1300 Martian earthquakes since 2018, some of which were even devilishly impressive on the Martian scale (see our articles ici et ici).

InSight suffocates in Martian dust

Here again, these are particularly valuable elements for planetary scientists. These readings are an invaluable resource, as they allow us to indirectly auscultate the interior of the planet by analyzing the recorded seismic profiles.

But obviously, all these instruments need energy to function. InSight is supplied by solar panels; a simple and effective approach that works extremely well… as long as the panels in question remain clear.

And that’s the rub. Indeed, these photovoltaic surfaces essential to the survival of the probe are bearing the brunt of the Martian weather. His battering ended up getting the better of the protective coating of the panels; a thick layer of dust therefore accumulates over time, which has the effect of reducing their effectiveness over time.

And as a result, the whole probe is gradually suffocated, a bit like a smoker whose cells are gradually filled with tar. At present, InSight already generates only one tenth of the energy it could produce when it arrived on Mars. And it’s not going to work out, much to NASA’s chagrin.

The probe’s photovoltaic panels are now almost completely covered in dust. © NASA/JPL-Caltech

A last breath expected next July

The agency indeed expected that periodic small gusts would be enough to prevent this accumulation of dust; unfortunately this was not the case. She didn’t have much more success with the other alternative methods that were tested. However, she got a short reprieve in May 2021, and with an astonishing approach. Enough to remove some of the dust by pouring thicker sand on its panels using its robotic arm.

Unfortunately, that only postponed the inevitable. The layer now seems too solid to reuse this sleight of hand again. It therefore seems certain that it will no longer move, and the days of the machine are therefore numbered. With a heavy heart, NASA has therefore announced the start of a countdown which will probably end next July. After that time, they will continue to monitor the craft until the end of the year. They thus hope that a small miracle will occur; after all, it is not excluded that a providential gust finally succeeds in dusting the panels. But this scenario now seems very unlikely, and it is more reasonable to start mourning this beautiful machine now.

A well-deserved retirement and important scientific heritage

He is therefore preparing to join Opportunity, who died in 2018, on the list of machines suffocated by the merciless Martian dust. With a bit of luck, he will still be able to shine with some great discoveries – why not a new record earthquake – in the meantime.

But even if it is not entitled to this last stand, InSight will have well deserved its retirement. The machine will be able to leave with its head held high after a busy career. This mission can boast of having produced superb results, well beyond NASA’s expectations. Remember that originally, InSight’s mission was planned to last a year; it is now in its fourth year of operation.

A longevity that has enabled him to bring back superb data to researchers. The latter today owe him a considerable part of their knowledge of the entrails of Mars. By extension, the probe has also contributed to our understanding of the formation process of terrestrial planets like the Earth. “InSight has had fantastic success“, sums up Bruce Banerdt, NASA mission manager. A legacy that will be very important for the rest of the operations, even for the conquest of the planet desired by Elon Musk.

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