‘Marsquake’ spacecraft about to die, says NASA

NASA’s mission to measure “Marsquakes” is almost over as a dust storm on the red planet threatens to prevent its solar panels from recharging their batteries.

It could become space junk within days or weeks, according to NASA, which has made the decision to shut down its science instruments for the next two weeks.

The InSight rover, which landed in Mars’ flat region of Elysium Planitia in November 2018 to take seismic measurements, has experienced a further drop in power in recent weeks after a “continental-sized” dust storm erupted in the southern hemisphere of the planet.

NASA hoped that a passing dust storm could blow the dust off the solar panels. However, this latest distant dust storm is only creating a dusty Hayes in the Martian atmosphere that makes it even more difficult for its solar panels to collect sunlight. NASA reports that InSight’s power dropped from 425 watt-hours per Martian day, or sun, to just 275 watt-hours per sun.

In May 2022, NASA reported that InSight had detected the largest earthquake to date, and thus the largest earthquake ever recorded outside Earth. An estimated magnitude 5 earthquake occurred on May 4, 2022, the latest of a total of 1,313 earthquakes detected by the mission so far.

Until the latter was damaged by the storm, InSight had been operating its seismometer every two Martian days, although in May 2022 it had to shut down after a massive power failure. As it stands, InSight only has what NASA describes as “a few more weeks to live.”

“We were at the bottom of our ladder when it comes to power. Now we’re on the ground floor,” said Chuck Scott, InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If we can get out of this, we can keep operating until the winter, but I would worry about the next storm that comes.”

NASA has previously estimated that the lander would cease to function between late October 20202 and January 2023. Now it seems quite optimistic, with another dust storm destined to end the InSight mission. The only way to make it to the end of 2022 is if a passing eddy wipes out its solar panels. This is unlikely.

Being covered in dust is a fate that eventually befalls most NASA missions that land on Mars. NASA’s Opportunity rover, nicknamed “Oppy” and circling the Red Planet for 15 years, was finally killed in 2018 by a series of dust storms that eventually drained its batteries beyond recovery.

Because NASA’s two Mars rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance, run on nuclear power, they don’t have to worry about storms affecting power levels.

InSight was launched in May 2018 and landed on Mars in November 2018 to study its Martian crust, mantle and core. Its mission is:

  • discover how a rocky body forms and evolves to become a planet.
  • investigate the interior structure and composition of Mars.
  • determine the rate of Martian tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

InSight’s original mission ended in December 2020, but NASA extended the mission for two years.

I wish you clear skies and wide eyes.

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