Engineers prepare to bid farewell to NASA InSight, the latest images from the Mars lander

At the end of October the Mars lander NASA InSight thanks to the publication of the study related to the impact of a meteorite on the surface of the Red Planet last December (and then taken out of orbit thanks to MRO’s HiRISE camera). This is an important discovery as it allows us to understand how the surface of Martha He is coming “modelled” of impacts as well as revealing some ice hidden beneath the dust.

Unfortunately the lander it is slowly coming to the end of its operational life. Engineers have been monitoring the ability of solar panels to produce energy for several months and the sandstorms of the winter period do not have the autonomy of Insight. This means that in the coming weeks the lander will no longer respond to contacts from Earth, marking the end of the mission. A mission that nonetheless collected important data to study.

NASA InSight and the latest images of Mars

In May this year, what will probably be the last one was taken “selfie” of Mars lander showing its surface covered with dust. Over the months, other images of part of the lander were captured to show scientists and engineers some details with the latest pictures taken on October 30 (during the solstice of 1395).

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The penultimate image of the Mars lander from October 10, 2022

As written in a space agency article “The day is approaching when NASA’s InSight Mars lander will shut down, ending its historic mission to reveal the secrets of the Red Planet’s interior.”. The team, which currently consists of 25-30 people, is preparing to conclude the work and then make the collected data available to all researchers worldwide. This means that even if the lander will stop working, there may be new discoveries “posthumous”.

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The last image of the Mars lander from October 10, 2022 (source)

When it was summer on earth, come now Martha the winter period began by reducing the energy available for NASA Insight (less than 20% of what was obtained at the beginning of the mission). This forced the engineers to turn off all unnecessary tools and only the seismometer. As with all other missions, there is on our planet a copy, called ForeSight, of the lander that was used by the engineers to find solutions to the problems that arose. This model will now be stored in storage as it is no longer usable (but will not be destroyed).

The mission of NASA Insight it will end when the agency has no response from the lander through the Mars Relay Network for two consecutive times (the lander does not communicate directly with Earth, but uses orbits around the planet). Bruce Banerdt (from the JPL) declared “we are at the mercy of Mars. Time on Mars is not rain and snow; time on Mars is dust and wind”.

Cleaning the solar panels of NASA InSight

One of the most common questions is “Why didn’t NASA have a system to clean the solar panels?”. The answer is of course complex, but it has already been given before. This is just a short summary.

When a mission is established, a duration of the main mission is also determined. In the case of NASA Insight this period started from the landing, in November 2018, to November 2020. If the lander if it had continued for that period, it would still have been a success (although we were used to missions lasting much longer, such as NASA Curiosity). We now know that the duration was twice as long.

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Budget is an essential element when it comes to missions of this type. The development of additional components has a very high cost (you have to produce, test, certify) e “Making it last twice as long results in much more than double the cost”, as mentioned in the past. Mechanical elements then add mass, can fail and were unnecessary precisely because the lander was built to last as long as expected. The use of an RTG was ruled out in terms of cost and also because the necessary plutonium was not available at the time. We must also take this into account Insight was born on the projects of the Phoenix lander, it lets us understand how much the NASA tried to “cut costs” to fit within the budget.

A hope for future missions with solar panels comes from Zhurong, the Chinese rover. The latter uses a new polymer with a structure similar to lotus leaves on the panels that should allow the Martian dust to slip away. However, its functioning is still being verified (although it seems to have done an excellent job so far).

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