NASA has extended the first interplanetary mission launched from the West Coast, but the spacecraft needs the help of the winds on the Red Planet to stay healthy.
InSight – its longer name is Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport mission – launched from what is now Vandenberg Space Force Base in May 2018 and arrived on Mars in November 2018.
“The extended mission will continue InSight’s seismic and weather monitoring if the spacecraft remains healthy,” NASA said. “However, due to dust accumulation on its solar panels, InSight’s power generation is low and the mission is unlikely to continue operations for the duration of its current extended mission unless its panels solar cells are cleaned by a ‘dust devil’ on Mars.’ Ambience.
A layer of red dust covered the solar panels of InSight – manufactured in Goleta at the facilities of Orbital ATK and now Northrop Grumman. These panels keep the machine powered and able to fulfill its mission. The dust can filter the sunlight that reaches the panels and cover them so they can’t do their job charging the lander’s batteries.
Dust periodically tormented the panels. In January, InSight entered safe mode due to a major regional dust storm, NASA said.
An interactive image showing before and after images of the dusty panels can be found by clicking here.
The dust led to creative solutions from the team, which used a shovel on the lander’s robotic arm to reduce dust to a panel, bringing energy boosts to 2021.
Scientists remain hopeful for InSight’s future, saying in February that the solar panels were producing almost as much power as before the storm: “This level of power should allow the lander to continue its science operations during the summer”.
But the layers of dust will likely decrease InSight’s power budget, so the team carefully conserved power by turning on scientific instruments for short periods.
“Having achieved all of the mission’s primary science objectives, the goal now is to allow the spacecraft to operate until the end of its extended mission in December,” NASA said. “A whirlwind that lifts dust or a new dust storm that increases dust accumulation could alter the timeline.
An aspect of InSight’s mission to take the Red Planet’s vital signs stopped working earlier when the thermal probe’s mole couldn’t burrow deep enough below Mars’ surface.
However, InSight’s seismic station, the only one operating beyond Earth, continued to study the March tremors, NASA said.
Officials initially said InSight was designed to operate for a year on Mars or two years on Earth, but exceeded that expected lifespan.
InSight will continue through the end of 2022 unless the spacecraft’s power supply permits longer operations, NASA said.
It is one of eight spacecraft to see planetary science mission extensions, one for nine years and most for three years.
The other seven missions with extensions were Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons.
Missions chosen to achieve longer life were reviewed by a panel of independent experts from academia, injury and NASA.
“Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s significant investments in exploration, allowing science operations to continue at a much lower cost than developing a new mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to gain valuable new science data and, in some cases, allows NASA to explore new targets with entirely new science goals.”