NASA has extended the first interplanetary mission launched from the West Coast, but the spacecraft needs an assist from winds on the Red Planet to remain healthy.
InSight — its longer name is Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport mission — launched from what’s now called 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 electrical power production is low, and the mission is unlikely to continue operations for the duration of its current extended mission unless its solar panels are cleared by a passing ‘dust devil’ in Mars’ atmosphere.”
A layer of red dust has coated InSight’s solar panels — crafted in Goleta at then-Orbital ATK facility and now Northrop Grumman. Those panels keep the craft powered and capable of doing its mission. Dust can filter sunlight that reaches the panels and cover them up so they can’t do their job charging the lander’s batteries.
Dust has periodically plagued the panels. In January, InSight entered safe mode because of a large regional dust storm, NASA said.
An interactive image showing before and after images of the dusty panels can be found by clicking here.
Dust has led to some creative solutions by the team, which used a scoop on the lander’s robotic arm to reduce dust on one panel, bringing energy boosts in 2021.
Scientists remain hopeful for InSight’s future, saying in February that solar panels were producing almost as much power as they did before the storm: “That power level should enable the lander to continue science operations into the summer.”
But the layers of dust likely will diminish InSight’s power budget, so the team has carefully conserved the energy by turning on science instruments for small periods of time.
“Having completed all primary mission science objectives, the goal now is to enable the spacecraft to operate through the end of its extended mission in December,” NASA said. “A passing whirlwind that removes dust or a new dust storm that increases the dust accumulation could alter the timeline.”
One aspect of InSight’s mission to take the vital signs of the Red Planet stopped working earlier when the heat probe’s mole couldn’t burrow deep enough below the Mars surface.
However, InSight’s seismic station, the only one operating beyond Earth, has continued to study marsquakes, NASA said.
Officials initially said InSight had been designed to operate for one Mars year or two Earth years, but has exceeded that designed lifespan.
InSight will continue until the end of 2022, unless the spacecraft’s electrical power allows for longer operations, NASA said.
It’s one of eight spacecraft to see planetary science mission extensions, one for nine years and most for three years.
The seven other missions granted extensions were Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx and New Horizons
Missions picked to get a longer life underwent a review by a group of independent experts from academic, injury and NASA.
“Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s large investments in exploration, allowing continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Headquarters. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to obtain valuable new science data, and in some cases, allows NASA to explore new targets with totally new science goals.”
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.