‘InSight’s legacy will live on’: NASA says goodbye to Mars lander

22 Dec 2022

The InSight Mars lander took this final selfie on 24 April 2022, the 1,211th Martian day of the mission. The image shows the dust accumulated on its solar panels, impacting power production. Image: NASA

Since its launch in 2018, the InSight lander has helped reveal secrets of the red planet’s interior.

NASA’s history-making InSight mission has come to a close after four years of scientific work on Mars.

Mission controllers were unable to contact the lander after two consecutive attempts, leading them to conclude that the spacecraft’s solar-powered batteries have run out of energy.

NASA said last month that the mission would be declared over if the lander missed two communication attempts.

While the space agency will continue to listen out for a signal, the last time InSight communicated with Earth was 15 December and hearing from it now is considered unlikely.

“I watched the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight conducted is cause for celebration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA.

“The seismic data alone from this Discovery Program mission offers tremendous insights not just into Mars but other rocky bodies, including Earth.”

InSight launched in May 2018 and reached the surface of Mars just over four years ago.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission was tasked with studying the deep interior of the red planet.

In recent years, data from the lander has revealed new details about ‘marsquakes’ and what lies beneath the planet’s surface.

Its highly sensitive seismometer detected 1,319 marksquakes, including ones caused by meteoroid impacts.

This information can help scientists determine the age of the planet’s surface, while seismometer data is useful for studying its crust, mantle and core.

“With InSight, seismology was the focus of a mission beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo missions, when astronauts brought seismometers to the moon,” said Philippe Lognonné of Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, who was principal investigator of InSight’s seismometer.

“We broke new ground, and our science team can be proud of all that we’ve learned along the way.”

InSight’s seismometer was the last science instrument that was powered on as dust accumulating on the lander’s solar panels gradually reduced its energy.

While NASA extended the mission earlier this year, it was expected that InSight would not be able to continue operations for much longer due to this dust accumulation and low power production.

In an update last month, the space agency said the end was approaching and it was winding down the mission.

“InSight has more than lived up to its name,” said Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

“As a scientist who’s spent a career studying Mars, it’s been a thrill to see what the lander has achieved … Yes, it’s sad to say goodbye, but InSight’s legacy will live on, informing and inspiring.”

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Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic