On Mars, Insight will “do the roundabout” for a few months

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Present on Mars since November 2018, the InSight lander is in a delicate position. Its solar panels are indeed covered in dust and energy is starting to run out, as winter continues. Engineers plan to limit power-ups while waiting for better days.

Since landing west of Elysium Planitia, an expanse of lava found at the Martian equator, Insight has detected more than 500 Martian earthquakes. This valuable data will allow researchers to learn more about its internal composition. Two of them, larger than the average, were detected the March 7 and 18 as the lander slowly began to close its eyes.

In recent months, InSight has indeed struggled with the local weather. Unlike other sites that NASA explored as part of the Curiosity and Perseverance missions, powerful gusts of wind did not sweep through Elysium Planitia. However, these winds, called “cleaning events”, are necessary to blow the Martian red dust that has settled on the solar panels.

As a result, InSight has difficulty absorbing sunlight. Its solar panels were not producing that 27% of their energy capacity in February, when winter was beginning to set in on Elysium Planitia.

The lander’s camera captured this image of one of its dust-covered solar panels on February 14, 2021. Credits: NASA / JPL

Round your back while waiting for better days

NASA therefore decided to put the lander in “hibernation mode”, switching off different instruments every day. Coming soon, Insight will shut down all functions that are not necessary for its survival.

By disrupting its science operations, the lander should be able to save enough power to keep its systems warm during the frigid Martian nights. On site, temperatures can drop to -60 ° C. However, nothing is guaranteed. “The amount of energy available over the next few months will really depend on the weather.“, Underlines Chuck Scott, InSight project manager.

InSight is still in good condition, but the risk of a blackout is still present. If the batteries in the lander fail, the robot may never recover. InSight is a good “zombie spaceship,” programmed to recharge and restart once the sun hits the tip of its nose. The problem is that in the meantime, the robot will have to expose itself to the Martian cold that much of the electronics might not withstand.

Researchers suspect this is what happened to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The two indeed lacked energy on the Martian surface and were unable to re-energize. Hoping that Insight does not suffer the same fate as its predecessors.

The agency plans to restart all operations after the “sunny days” return in July. If successful, the lander will be able to continue its mission until 2022.

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