NASA’s $800 million Mars lander on last legs – ‘Not going to last more than a year’

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InSight landed on Mars on November 26 in 2018, to study the inner structure of the planet, including its crust, mantle, and core. The spacecraft achieved its science objectives before its prime mission ended a year ago.

NASA then extended the mission for up to two years, to December 2022, based on the recommendation of an independent review panel composed of experts with backgrounds in science, operations and mission management.

NASA explained that on January 7, the InSight lander went into safe mode as a regional dust storm rolled into the area it’s stationed within.

On January 10, the InSight team was able to reconnect with the lander and found its power was holding steady but was quite low.

Even before the most recent dust storm, Martian dust has been accumulating on the lander’s solar panels, reducing the overall power supply of the lander.

According to the organisation, dust storms can affect solar panels in two ways, by reducing sunlight filtering through the atmosphere, and by accumulating on the panels.

Whether this storm will leave an additional layer of dust on the solar panels remains to be determined.

According to the Mars InSight mission website, the InSight team devised a way to reduce the amount of dust on the solar panels, and it involved using the lander’s robotic arm to scoop up dust and drop it upwind of the solar arrays.

However, the project’s leader, Bruce Banerdt, still hopes the lander’s mission ends within the year due to InSight’s declining power levels.

According to a news report by SpaceNews, Mr Banerdt said during a meeting about the Mars mission, the January 7 dust storm came on “very rapidly” and without “any early warning”.

He said that while the InSight managed to exit the “safe mode” it entered during the storm, the dust that continues to accumulate on its solar arrays is ultimately going to be what shuts it down for good.

Mr Banerdt, said during the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) on February 3, “Our current projections indicate that the energy will drop below that required to operate the payload in the May/June time frame and probably below survivability some time near the end of the year.”

Although the InSight team has submitted a request to NASA for an extension on the lander’s mission, which is funded through the end of 2022, that would rely on a “cleaning event” extending its lifespan, and Banerdt told SpaceNews that his group is “not betting our mortgage on it.”

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He said: “We don’t have a crystal ball, but our best estimate is that we probably won’t be getting very much science data past the summer.

“The spacecraft is probably not going to last more than about a year.”

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