The InSight lander might have transmitted its last picture from the surface of Mars. It looks like the lander is succumbing to Mars’ dusty conditions, as its ability to generate energy from its solar panels has been declining in recent weeks.
It’s always sad and somehow poignant when a lander or a rover falls silent. Each of them has a personality that goes along with their mission. But we’ve known for months this day was coming.
However, a research team led by ETH Zurich recently analyzed a cluster of more than 20 recent marsquakes, which revealed something very interesting. Based on the location and spectral character of these events, they determined that most of Mars’ widely distributed surface faults are not seismically active. Nevertheless, most of the 20 seismic events observed originated in the vicinity of Cerberus Fossae, a region consisting of rifts (or graben). These results suggest that geological activity and volcanism still play an active role in shaping the Martian surface.
The Mars InSight lander might be nearing the end of its life on the Red Planet, but its scientific data are still shaking up the planetary science community. That’s because it detected another Marsquake on December 24, 2021. It was a major shaker and generated surface waves that rippled across the crust of the planet. The data from that quake allowed science team members to get a better idea of the Martian crust’s structure.
For the first time, a spacecraft has detected acoustic and seismic waves from impacts on Mars. NASA’s InSight lander made the detections from four meteoroids that crashed on Mars in 2020 and 2021. Ever since the mission landed on the Red Planet in 2018, scientists have been hoping to be able to detect impacts with InSight’s seismometer, which was mainly designed to sense Marsquakes. But these impacts are the first the lander has detected.
Space science doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes when scientists think they’ve made a remarkable discovery that will make human expansion into the cosmos easier, they are just flat-out wrong. But the beauty of science is that it corrects itself in the presence of new data. The people responsible for planning future Mars missions will have to make just such a correction as new data has come in on the availability of water on the red planet. There’s not as much of it as initially thought. At least not around the equator where InSight landed.
The InSight Mars lander will cease science operations sometime in the next few months due to a decreasing power supply, mission managers said at a news conference on May 17. Martian dust covering the solar panels has reduced the amount of power to roughly 500 watt-hours per Mars day or sol. When InSight landed in November of 2018, the solar panels produced around 5,000 watt-hours each sol.
“At the end of the calendar year, we do anticipate having to conclude all InSight operations,” said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight’s deputy project manager said at the briefing, “not because we want to turn it off but unfortunately we don’t have the energy to run it.”
May 4th is unofficially known in sci-fi circles as Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth Be With You”) here on Earth. But, on another planet, far, far away, the date is now infamous to one of its robotic inhabitants. That’s the day the Mars InSight lander felt one of the strongest marsquakes ever to hit that world. It registered magnitude 5 and was the latest 1,313 quakes the lander detected since it arrived on Mars in 2018. InSight scientists are still analyzing the data to figure out exactly where on Mars the quake struck, and what may have caused it.
On August 25th, 2021, the mission detected a magnitude 4.2 and a magnitude 4.1 marsquake, the two largest seismic events recorded to date. These events (labeled S0976a and S1000a, respectively) were five times stronger than the previous largest event (a 3.7 marsquake in 2019) and the first that originated on the other side of the planet. The seismic wave data from these events could help scientists learn more about the interior of Mars, particularly its core-mantle boundary.
NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.
The InSight lander has been on Mars, gathering data for a thousand days now, working to give us a better understanding of the planet’s interior. It’s at Elysium Planitia, the second largest volcanic region on Mars. A newly-published paper based on seismic data from the lander shows something unexpected underground: a layer of sediment sandwiched between layers of lava flows.