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NASA’s InSight Lander touched down on the surface of Mars on November 26, 2018 after a six-month journey from Earth. NASA’s primary goal for the lander was to glean a better understanding of how terrestrial planets, like Earth and Mars, formed and evolved.
Over three years later, InSight has achieved all of its primary science goals. According to NASA, the InSight team is preparing for the day they’ll have to turn off the lander’s seismometer and other instruments due to the dust slowly covering its solar panels.
The InSight Lander is completely solar powered, and its panels were designed to get the lander through its first two years on the planet with ease, according to Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator and principal research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
The lander is equipped with a seismometer, a heat flow and physical properties package, to measure how much temperature is flowing out of the interior of the planet, and a radio science instrument, RISE, which measures the wobble of Mars’ North Pole as the sun pushes and pulls it in its orbit.
Since landing, InSight has recorded over 1,300 quakes on Mars. The information gathered from the seismometer helped NASA’s scientists better study the layers beneath the surface of Mars. InSight’s seismometer was the first to ever detect a quake on another planet.
Below is an artist’s concept of what seismic waves, captured by InSight’s seismometer, from a marsquake might look like as they move through the interior of Mars, provided by NASA/JPL.
InSight’s heat flow probe was not able to reach its intended target of 3-5 meters below the Martian surface, and was unable to obtain the heat flow measurements NASA hoped for. However, the team was able to get some useful measurements, such as the heat transfer in the soil.
The lander’s solar panels have been slowly gathering dust from the Martian atmosphere since its landing, and NASA’s team has been trying to work against the building problem. The team was able to get the lander through the Martian winter, a low power season for InSight, by using its arm to dump heavier sand onto the arrays of the lander to knock the lighter dust off of its solar panels.
While the cleaning method allowed the lander to last through the winter, NASA expects it will run out of power later in the summer, according to Banerdt. Due to the alignment of the Mars and the sun, the atmosphere is expected to get much dustier, resulting in a quick drop in power for the lander.
The lander’s science goals were to understand the formation and evolution on Mars and determine the level of tectonic activity on Mars. While it’s already achieved these goals, the lander continues to take seismic readings until it runs out of power.