NASA's Mars InSight lander will risk earlier shut down to squeeze out a little more science

a very dusty spacecraft
InSight's 'final selfie' of April 24, 2022, shows a solar-powered lander caked in Martian dust. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's InSight mission is working to squeeze out all the science it can as power runs out.

The solar-powered InSight lander is only working at about one-tenth of its landing capacity of 5,000 watt-hours and had expected to shut off its seismometer — its last operational science instrument running on dwindling power supplies — in June.

However, the mission team plans to program InSight to allow the seismometer to operate "perhaps until the end of August or into early September," according to a Tuesday (June 21) update (opens in new tab) from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which operates the mission.

"InSight hasn't finished teaching us about Mars yet," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in the statement. "We're going to get every last bit of science we can before the lander concludes operations."

Related: NASA's InSight lander detects the biggest quake on Mars yet

The decision reflects a tradeoff, and NASA officials were forced to choose between keeping charge in the lander's batteries later into the year and getting more data from the lander's seismometer in hopes of detecting more marsquakes.

To keep the seismometer operating longer, the mission team plans to turn off the spacecraft's fault protection system. However, that decision carries some risk and may mean the seismometer turns off unexpectedly and before power runs out entirely.

"It leaves the lander unprotected from sudden, unexpected events that ground controllers wouldn't have time to respond to," JPL officials wrote in the press release. Mars is several minutes' radio communication distance from Earth, meaning it's impossible for controllers to respond instantly to events on the Red Planet.

These before-and-after images show NASA's InSight Mars lander just after its 2018 landing (left) and in May 2022, where dust on its solar arrays has cut its power levels to just one-tenth what they were at the mission's start. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The lander touched down in 2018 for what was expected to be nearly two Earth years (one Martian year) of science, and has been extended due to its successful work in assessing the Red Planet's interior and measuring marsquakes.

The solar panels have no system to clear off dust, with InSight relying on lucky winds or passing dust devils. Engineers did take off a bit of dust in 2021 by drizzling sand on the lander and allowing wind to blow that sand across a solar panel, however, the technique wasn't enough to save the lander as winter and the dust storm season took hold.

Now, NASA has determined that the best approach for InSight's last few weeks of work on the Red Planet is to prioritize science over energy conservation.

"The goal is to get scientific data all the way to the point where InSight can't operate at all, rather than conserve energy and operate the lander with no science benefit," Chuck Scott, InSight's project manager at JPL, said in the statement.

You can track InSight's falling power supplies on the mission's NASA blog.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace