The most important of the final steps of the InSight mission is to store the treasure trove of data and make it accessible to researchers around the world. The lander data provided details about Mars’ inner layers, its liquid core, the amazingly variable remnants below the surface of Mars’ mostly extinct magnetic field, the weather on that part of Mars, and lots of earthquake activity.
InSight’s seismometer, provided by France’s Center National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes since it landed in November 2018, the largest a magnitude 5. He even recorded earthquakes from meteor impacts. Observing how the seismic waves from these earthquakes change as they travel across the planet provides an invaluable glimpse into the interior of Mars, but also provides a better understanding of how all rocky worlds form, including Earth and the Moon.
“Finally, we can see Mars as a layered planet, with different thicknesses, compositions,” said Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re starting to tinker with the details. Now it’s not just that conundrum. it’s actually a living, breathing planet.”
The seismometer readings will join the only other set of extraterrestrial seismic data, from the Apollo lunar missions, in NASA’s Planetary Data System. They will also go into an international archive run by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, which hosts “all the data sites of the terrestrial seismic network,” said JPL’s Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator. “Now, we have one on Mars, too.”
Smrekar said the data is expected to continue yielding discoveries for decades.
Earlier this summer, the spacecraft had so little power left that the mission turned off all of InSight’s other science instruments to keep the seismometer running. They even disabled the fault protection system, which would otherwise automatically shut down the seismometer if the system detects that the lander’s power output is dangerously low.
“We’re down to less than 20% of original production capacity,” Banerdt said. “That means we can’t afford to run the instruments around the clock.”
Recently, after a regional dust storm added to the lander’s dust-covered solar panels, the team decided to turn off the seismometer entirely to conserve power. Now that the storm is over, the seismometer is collecting data again – although the mission expects the lander to only have enough power for a few more weeks.
Of the seismometer’s array of sensors, only the most sensitive ones were still working, said Liz Barrett, who leads science and instrument operations for the team at JPL, adding, “We’re pushing it all the way.”
Packing Up Twin
A silent member of the team is ForeSight, the full-size engineering model of InSight at JPL’s In-Situ Instrument Laboratory. Engineers used ForeSight to practice how InSight would place science instruments on the Martian surface with the lander’s robotic arm, testing techniques to get the lander’s thermal probe into sticky Martian soil and developing ways to reduce of the noise collected by the seismometer.
ForeSight will be crated and stored. “We’re going to prepare it with loving care,” Banerdt said. “He’s been a great tool, a great companion for us throughout this mission.”
Mission termination statement
NASA will declare the mission complete when InSight loses two consecutive communication sessions with the Mars-orbiting spacecraft, part of the Mars Relay Network — but only if the cause of the lost communication is the lander itself, said the network manager Roy Gladden of JPL. After that, NASA’s Deep Space Network will listen for a while, just in case.
There will be no heroic measures to restore contact with InSight. While a mission-saving event – a strong gust of wind, say, that clears the panels – is not out of the question, it is considered unlikely.
In the meantime, as long as InSight remains in contact, the team will continue to collect data. “We will continue to make scientific measurements as long as we can,” Banerdt said. “We are at the mercy of Mars. The weather on Mars is not rain and snow. The weather on Mars is dust and wind.”
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