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How NASA’s Mars InSight lander mission will end

NASA’s InSight Mars lander reached the red planet four years ago and has worked well beyond the two years originally set for the mission. But in the coming weeks or perhaps months, the lander will make its final communications with Earth before falling silent for the rest of time.

A gradual accumulation of Martian dust on the lander’s solar panels has reduced its ability to retain power, and so it will soon be unable to continue its seismology work gathering data about the red planet’s interior.

This week, NASA shared a post describing how the InSight team of around 30 people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California is starting to wind down the mission.

Managing power

Managing InSight’s diminishing power levels has become more important recently as the team is keen to make the most of the lander in its final months.

Power management techniques included turning off all of InSight’s science instruments earlier this summer so that it could continue to run the seismometer and beam back gathered data to Earth.

Preserving data

A big part of the team’s final work is to properly store all of the data gathered by InSight over the years and to make it available to researchers around the world.

“The lander data has yielded details about Mars’ interior layers, its liquid core, the surprisingly variable remnants beneath the surface of its mostly extinct magnetic field, weather on this part of Mars, and lots of quake activity,” the team said.

Bruce Banerdt of JPL said that thanks to all of the data gathered by the lander, Mars is no longer “just this enigma; it’s actually a living, breathing planet.”

Packing up the twin

ForeSight is a full-size engineering model of InSight. The machine is located at JPL and was used by the team to practice how InSight would place science instruments on the Martian surface using its robotic arm. It was also useful for finding the most effective way of getting the lander’s heat probe into the planet’s soil, and for developing ways to reduce the level of irrelevant noise picked up by InSight’s seismometer.

With its work now complete, ForeSight will be crated and placed in storage.

“We’ll be packing it up with loving care,” Banerdt said. “It’s been a great tool, a great companion for us this whole mission.”

Declaring mission end

NASA will officially declare the mission as over when InSight misses two consecutive communication sessions with the spacecraft orbiting Mars, so long as InSight is the cause of the missed communications.

Could anything prolong the mission? If a strong gust of Martian wind blew the dust from InSight’s solar panels, that would give the team extra time to work with the lander, but such an event is considered unlikely.

No one knows for sure when InSight will make its final communication, but until then, the team will attempt to continue working with it.

“We’ll keep making science measurements as long as we can,” Banerdt said.

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Trevor Mogg
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