The InSight lander, tasked with detecting Martian earthquakes, has now officially ended its mission and will remain on the flat plains of the Martian surface as dust slowly collects on its solar cells and other instruments.
The final stop of the device did not come as a surprise to NASA. InSight’s solar panels, which generated electricity, have been covered in dust since they were deployed on the Red Planet. The mission, officially known as Interior Exploration through Seismic, Geodesy, and Heat Transfer (InSight), was expected to wind down this summer, but a series of good weather conditions allowed Mars to continue for a few extra months.
NASA had been monitoring the launch vehicle’s status, and as it became clear that the vehicle was running out of time, messages from the agency became increasingly emotional. In October, the launcher’s official Twitter page announced that it was “staying calm” while a dust storm darkened the sky. Its team thanked fans for sending virtual cards and assured the millions of people who submitted their names with the rover that “we are together here on Mars, my eternal home”.
The social media team also took care to explain why the lander does not have dust removal equipment, and asked people to remember that Mars has other vehicles before publishing the latest photo of the dusty lander.
On December 15, the InSight lander made its last contact with Earth, according to a NASA press release. The agency will keep trying, but after the mission team failed to communicate with the lander, they determined that InSight’s batteries were likely dead, rendering it functionally dead.
The shutdown of InSight brings to an end a largely successful mission to explore the interior of Mars. The lander launched in May 2018 and landed in November of the same year. It was equipped with a seismometer that recorded more than 1,000 Martian earthquakes. Most impulses were relatively small, but at least one detected earlier this year was equivalent to a magnitude 5 earthquake. Scientists use data from the shaking to get a better picture of Mars’ composition.
While the seismometer was certainly a success, another instrument on the lander ran into trouble. InSight had a “mole” that was designed to burrow deep into the planet’s surface. Unfortunately, the soil near the landing site was not as soft as the team expected, and the instrument was unable to function properly.
All in all, the mission was quite a success, and in April NASA decided to extend it until the end of this year – or until the launcher runs out of power, which it eventually did.