NASA’s $ 800 million Mars lander is in an energy crisis.
InSight, which landed in a Martian plain named Elysium Planitia in 2018, has recorded more than 500 Mars earthquakes, felt more than 10,000 dust devils pass by and began measuring the planet’s core.
But over the past few months, InSight has been fighting for its life as the unpredictable weather of the red planet threatens to sniff out the robot.
Unlike other places where NASA has sent rovers and landers – including the landing site of the new Perseverance rover and its Mars helicopter – strong gusts of wind have not swept Elysium Planitia.
These winds, called “cleaning events,”
Above: InSight Landers camera captured an image of one of its solar panels covered in dust on February 14th.
InSight’s solar panels produced only 27 percent of their energy capacity in February, when winter arrived at Elysium Planitia.
So NASA decided to put the lander in “sleep mode” and turn off various instruments every day. Soon, the robot shuts down all functions not necessary for its survival.
By stopping its scientific operations, the lander should be able to save enough power to keep its systems warm through the cool Mars nights when temperatures can drop to negative-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The amount of power available over the next few months will really be driven by the weather,” said Chuck Scott, InSight’s project manager, in a statement.
Now almost halfway through its expected hibernation period, InSight is still in good condition, but the risk of a potentially fatal power failure is always present. If the lander’s batteries die, it may never recover.
“We would be hopeful that we could bring it back to life, especially if it does not sleep or is dead for a long time,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s lead researcher, told Insider. “But that would be a boring situation.”
The agency expects to restart InSight’s full operations after Mars swings back toward the sun in July. If it can survive this March winter, the lander could continue to listen for earthquakes and track weather by 2022.
InSight’s power shortage contributed to NASA’s decision to abandon the lander’s ‘mole’ in January. The digging probe was to measure the temperature deep inside the Mars crust – important data in the study of the planet’s history and internal structure.
Now researchers are missing out on even more data as the lander shuts down its instruments. Its weather forecasts on Mars have become scarce, and in the next month or so it will stop listening for earthquakes.
Banerdt said he’s afraid the lander could miss some major earthquakes, but it’s worth keeping the robot alive. If InSight’s batteries die, he added, “it’s a good zombie spacecraft” – meaning it’s programmed to recharge and reboot when the sun comes out.
“The problem with this scenario is that the spacecraft, meanwhile, is very, very cold. And this is happening during the coldest part of the year for the spacecraft,” Banerdt said. “A lot of the electronics are pretty delicate. And unfortunately, it’s quite likely that something will be damaged by the cold.”
Banerdt suspects this is what happened to Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. Both ran out of energy on the surface of Mars and could not turn on again. He is hoping, however, that InSight does not have to die.
“Right now, our predictions, our projections, are that we need to be able to get through the lowest point of power and get out on the other side,” Banerdt said.
Still, a strange dust storm in the next four or five months could tip the scales by putting more dirt on InSight’s solar panels. That’s what happened to Opportunity. But luckily it’s not dust storm season.
“We think it’s pretty good with us, but Mars is unpredictable. We never know exactly what will happen,” Banerdt said.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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