The main star on Mars is now the persistent rover And his small helicopter, which will take off near the surface for a short but historic adventure in the atmosphere of a red planet.
In addition to it, the Curiosity rover is also operating on the surface, and a Chinese probe will land there in a month, and we shouldn’t forget InSight either. The only functional static probe has encountered problems recently.
The InSight spacecraft landed in November 2018. It is equipped with two main instruments and several smaller instruments on board to explore the interior of the planet. Unfortunately, the heat probe failed. The mole could not break to the required depth of five meters, so scientists recently described an experiment.
However, the SEIS seismometer does work and detects planetary tremors. However, it will soon be at least temporarily decommissioned, and with it the probe will be completely switched off.
Every spacecraft needs an energy source. Current rovers rely on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator independent of ambient conditions. InSight generates electricity with two large solar panels. Each is 2.15 meters in diameter. After landing on the first Martian day, the panels produced 4.6 kWh.
However, Mars dust is gradually falling onto the panels, which can be clearly seen in the images over time. The amount of dust reduces the amount of energy the panels produce – in February it was only 27%.
Solar Panels InSight. From left: December 2018, April 2019, February 2021. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech
The probe needs energy to power the scientific instruments, but also to plug and heat major electronic parts that dislike the harsh Martian winters.
NASA is gradually closing the probe as winter approaches. In a few weeks, the SEIS seismometer will also be turned off and the probe put into a dormant state. The probe has a kind of “zombie mode”. Programmed to recharge and restart when spring arrives. This could happen in July.
Mars winter is the most common cause of spacecraft deaths on the planet. The final example is the Opportunity rover, which was put into hibernation in June 2018 and then unresponsive. His fellow Spirit or Phoenix Probe, from which Insight is based, appeared similarly.
Where did they go wrong?
The probe needs energy to survive the winter. However, the efficiency of dusty panels drops by tens of percent.
In the case of InSight, it’s a combination of two problems. There is nothing on board to artificially clean the panels. Tilting boards, using a “squeegee”, or any other solution would be useful to scientists now. But it can go wrong with every device, each device costing extra money, and each device weighing something, which costs extra money.
The probe’s $ 820 million mission could, in the end, paradoxically end the problem, with a broom with a trowel for a few dozen crowns on the floor.
The second problem is the conditions in Elysium Planitia. In the case of the said rovers, the planet also showed a gentle face. The Opportunity and Spirit boards were covered in dust, but the rover occasionally encountered a vortex of winds cleaning the panels again. At NASA, they call this “clean-up events.”
One example for everyone. In April 2009, the power production of Spirit increased from 223 Wh to 372 Wh in a matter of days due to wind and plate cleaning. However, Elysium Planitia avoids cleaning events, so more and more dust falls onto the probe.
According to the scientists, InSight should survive the winter and return to work within a few months – though it will likely only be for a few more months. SEIS seismograph folks are only worried that they will miss a few large marshes.
However, if a dust storm does come, it will be final for the probe. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that InSight is already overdue. Its mission was to last just over 700 Martian days. He’s now running more than 150 sols.