NASA’s InSight Mars earthquake detection mission has come to an end

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After making groundbreaking discoveries about the mysterious interior of the red planet, the InSight lander’s mission has officially ended.

The stationary lander spent almost 1,500 days on Mars. Mission managers declared an end to the program on Wednesday. after the lander failed to respond to two messages from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The mission, short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, ended more than four years after its first landing on November 26, 2018.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement that “while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science that InSight accomplished is cause for celebration. Seismic data from this Discovery Program mission alone offers tremendous insight not only into Mars but also into other rocky bodies, including Earth.”

Designed to last just two years, InSight’s mission was extended twice. But a large buildup of dust on its solar panels caused a steady drop in the lander’s power supply.

Mars is a frigid desert where the weather is driven by swirling dust. Over the course of InSight’s time on Mars, it survived dust storms and dust eddies. The clever mission team and the wind on Mars helped clean the solar arrays from time to time.

NASA's InSight Mars lander took this selfie on April 24.

Eventually, nothing could stop the red dust from forming an impenetrable layer on InSight’s solar arrays, as captured by one of the Final mission selfies in April.

Despite these challenges, InSight retained the power to continue capturing science from its home on a plain called Elysium Planitia along the Martian equator. Slowly, he turned off his instruments, one by one, as he listened to the Marsquakes roar to the end.

Unlike its roaming rover cousins, InSight was designed to stay at its landing site and perform the first “checkout” of Mars, decked out with 7-foot solar arrays, an instrument suite and a robotic arm.

InSight made history by detecting the first earthquakes on another planet and heard Mars rumble more than 1,300 times during its mission.

Marsquakes are like the earthquakes we experience on Earth, just a little different when it comes to why they occur on each planet.

When we experience earthquakes, it is because Earth’s tectonic plates are shifting, moving, and colliding with each other. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.

Think of the Martian crust as a single giant plate. This crust has faults and fractures within it because the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This puts pressure on the Martian crust, stretching and cracking it.

The lander’s incredibly sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures, could detect marsquakes hundreds and thousands of kilometers away.

In May, InSight captured “the big one”, a marsquake with a magnitude of 5which sent vibrations through the planet for at least six hours.

Insight too heard space rocks when they crashed into mars and left open, fresh craters. A revealed a treasure trove of ice buried near the warm Martian equator.

When seismic waves from earthquakes on Mars traveled through different materials within the Martian interior, they allowed scientists to study the structure of the planet.

The data collected by InSight also revealed new details about the unexplored Martian core, mantle and crust, including why the core of Mars is still molten. The findings may shed light on whether it was ever able to support life and how rocky planets like Mars and Earth formed in the solar system.

It wasn’t always an easy path for the lander and its instruments.

“The Mole,” or self-hammering heat probe, was designed to reach at least 16 feet below the surface to record heat escaping from the interior, according to NASA.

The InSight team tirelessly tried every trick in the book, including beating it, to send the package of physical properties and heat flux below the Martian soil for nearly two years. But the strange clumping of the ground prevented the mole from getting the friction it needed, and it was essentially retired in January 2021.

Although dust ultimately ended InSight’s mission, as with other solar-powered robotic Mars explorers such as the rover Opportunity, the lander made an in-depth study of its enemy.

InSight collected the most comprehensive weather data of any mission sent to the surface of Mars, according to NASA.

For four years, he captured daily weather forecasts on Mars, recorded the spooky sounds of the windrode the martian winters and watched thousands of sunrises and sunsets.

InSight has given scientists a more complete picture of Mars and has gathered information that will be critical when humans land on the red planet.

“We’ve thought of InSight as our friend and colleague on Mars for the past four years, so it’s hard to say goodbye,” said Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission. “But he has earned his much-deserved retirement.”

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