Pondering what services to switch off to keep your laptop going just that bit longer? NASA engineers can relate, having decided the Mars InSight lander will go out on a high: they plan to burn through the remaining power to keep the science flowing until the bitter end.
The InSight lander is in a precarious position regarding power. A build-up of dust has meant the spacecraft’s solar panels are no longer generating anywhere near enough power to keep the batteries charged. The result is an automatic shutdown of the payload, although there is a chance InSight might still be able to keep communicating until the end of the year.
Almost all of InSight’s instruments have already been powered down, but the seismometer remains active and able to detect seismic activity on Mars (such as Marsquakes.) The seismometer was expected to be active until the end of June, at which point it too would be shut-down in order to eke out the lander’s dwindling supply of power just a little longer.
However, the team has elected to keep the seismometer going as long as possible, reasoning that the science return justifies a shortening of the probe’s life. To do this, the team will deactivate InSight’s fault detection system, which is designed to automatically switch into a “safe mode” in the event of a drift outside of existing temperatures or a drop in power.
This will mean the seismometer should operate longer, but the price is an earlier end to the mission – late August or early September is the estimate – and the lander being put at risk of unexpected events before controllers on Earth have a chance to respond.
The lander arrived on Mars in November 2018 after a seven month journey from Earth. It was intended to operate for one Martian year (plus 40 Martian days) until November 24, 2020 although has endured far longer. As well as a seismometer, robot arm and temperature and wind sensors, the lander also carried a heat flow probe, which unsuccessfully attempted to burrow beneath the surface of the planet.
“The goal is to get scientific data all the way to the point where InSight can’t operate at all, rather than conserve energy and operate the lander with no science benefit,” said Chuck Scott, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
We remain hopeful that a cleaning event might miraculously restore power to the stricken lander. If not (and problematic Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package – aka the Mole – aside) then its achievements and longevity are to be applauded, as is the ingenuity of the team that designed and operated it. ®