InSight mission ended

Location of InSight's largest quakes
The white patches mark the locations on Mars of the largest quakes
detected by InSight

NASA today announced that it has officially ended the mission of the InSight lander on Mars.

Mission controllers at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California were unable to contact the lander after two consecutive attempts, leading them to conclude the spacecraft’s solar-powered batteries have run out of energy – a state engineers refer to as “dead bus.”

NASA had previously decided to declare the mission over if the lander missed two communication attempts. The agency will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case, but hearing from it at this point is considered unlikely. The last time InSight communicated with Earth was Dec. 15.

Other than the success of InSight’s seismometer, this project was mostly a failure. Its launch was delayed two years, from 2016 to 2018, because of problems with the original French seismometer, forcing JPL to take over. Then its German-made mole digger failed to drill into the Martian surface, causing the failure of the lander’s second instrument, a heat sensor designed to measure the interior temperature of Mars.

Fortunately the seismometer worked, or otherwise it would have been a total loss. That data has told us much about Mars and its interior.

InSight fails to respond during scheduled communications session

InSight's daily power levels as of December 12, 2022

Since December 15, 2022 engineers have been unable to contact the Mars InSight lander, which likely means its power levels have finally fallen so low that the spacecraft is no longer functioning.

On Dec. 18, 2022, NASA’s InSight did not respond to communications from Earth. The lander’s power has been declining for months, as expected, and it’s assumed InSight may have reached its end of operations. It’s unknown what prompted the change in its energy; the last time the mission contacted the spacecraft was on Dec. 15, 2022.

The graph to the right shows the decline in InSight’s power levels since May. The atmosphere has been clearing following the dust storm in October, indicated by the drop in the tau level. Normal tau levels outside of dust storm season are around 0.6-0.7. It is therefore likely that as this dust cleared, it also settled on InSight’s solar panels, and reduced their ability to generate power to the point the spacecraft ceased functioning.

This is very much the same thing that put the rover Opportunity out of business in 2019.

According to this update, engineers are going to continue to try to contact the lander, but it is likely that this effort will end in about a week, should no contact be successful.

Scientists publish papers describing largest Mars quake from May

Location of May quake

Though news of the largest quake so far detected by InSight on Mars, magnitude 4.7, was released in May, this week the science team published two papers describing the quake itself and what they have learned from it. From the press release:

The waves from the record-breaking quake lasted about 10 hours — quite a while, considering no previous Marsquakes exceeded an hour.

It was also curious because the epicenter was close to but outside the Cerberus Fossae region, which is the most seismically active region on the Red Planet. The epicenter did not appear to be obviously related to known geologic features, although a deep epicenter could be related to hidden features lower in the crust.

Marsquakes are often divided into two different types — those with high-frequency waves characterized by rapid but shorter vibrations, and those of low-frequency, when the surface moves slowly but with larger amplitude. This recent seismic event is rare in that it exhibited characteristics of both high- and low-frequency quakes. Further research might reveal that previously recorded low- and high-frequency quakes are merely two aspects of the same thing, Kawamura said.

The green-dotted white patch on the map above marks the approximate location of this quake, east of where most of the previous larger quakes have been detected and under the Medusa Fossae Formation of volcanic ash. That no surface features appear to correspond to this quake, it is thought it was the result of a shift of underground features.

InSight still going, but barely

InSight's daily power levels as of December 12, 2022

The InSight science team issued another update today, outlining the continuing low power levels produced by the Mars lander, barely enough to keep its seismometer, and nothing else, running.

As of Dec. 12, 2022, InSight is generating an average of ~285 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at .96 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

I have added these numbers to the graph at right in order to show their context over time. Since the October dust storm the levels have held steady, even as the dust in the atmosphere has cleared somewhat.

Nonetheless, InSight’s future continues to be day-to-day. Should it fail to respond to two consecutive scheduled communications sessions, the team will declare it dead, and make no effort at recovery. Though they have been expecting this to happen since the end of October, the lander continues to hang on.

InSight’s low power levels holding steady

InSight's power levels as of November 29, 2022

The science team for the Mars’ lander InSight today (December 6th) released a new update (dated November 29th) of the power levels being produced by its dust-covered solar panels.

As of Nov. 29, 2022, InSight is generating an average between 290 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at .95 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

I have added this new data unto the graph to the right, though I am puzzled by the date given to the update. Why post this today, when this update covers data only two days after the previous update (November 27th), and is more than a week out of date? This is especially puzzling because the numbers did not change at all.

Nonetheless, the lander is still alive, but barely. One wonders however what happened in the past week, since today’s update does not bring us up to date.

InSight continues to just hold on

InSight's power levels as of November 27, 2022

The InSight science team today posted another update on the daily power levels the Mars lander’s dust-covered solar panels are producing. The graph to the right includes these new numbers.

As of Nov. 27, 2022, InSight is generating an average between 285 and 295 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at .95 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

The atmosphere is definitely clearing from the dust storm that occurred in October. It also appears that not much of this dust is settling on InSight’s solar panels, since the daily power level has not dropped significantly.

Nonetheless, at these very low power levels, InSight’s future remains day-to-day. Unless it finally gets lucky and a dust devil blows the solar panels clear so more power can be generated, the mission will end should two scheduled communications sessions in a row fail to make contact.

InSight still alive

InSight's power levels

The InSight science team today posted another update on the power status of the Mars lander, as shown in the graph to the right.

As of Nov. 21, 2022, InSight is generating an average between 300 and 310 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at 1.33 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

Power levels, while critically low, remained level and sufficient to run the seismometer, though nothing else. At the beginning of the month the science team said these levels would only allow operations for a few more weeks, but here we are, a few weeks later, and InSight is still alive, though barely.

At this moment the situation is essentially day-to-day. If the lander misses two scheduled communications sessions, they will declare it dead. So far, that has not happened.

InSight status update: still alive!

InSight's daily power levels through October 31, 2022

UPDATE: JPL has released a press release, outlining the steps the InSight team will take to shut the mission down. Key quote:

NASA will declare the mission over when InSight misses two consecutive communication sessions with the spacecraft orbiting Mars, part of the Mars Relay Network – but only if the cause of the missed communication is the lander itself, said network manager Roy Gladden of JPL. After that, NASA’s Deep Space Network will listen for a time, just in case.

There will be no heroic measures to re-establish contact with InSight. While a mission-saving event – a strong gust of wind, say, that cleans the panels off – isn’t out of the question, it is considered unlikely.

Original post:
—————–

Another update on the power levels on the Mars lander InSight was released today, and is shown on the graph to the right.

As of October 31, 2022, InSight is generating an average between 280 and 290 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at 1.33 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

Though the dust level in the atmosphere has dropped, it still is high. Moreover, there is no sign of any clearing of dust from InSight’s solar panels. During the press conference late last week announcing the discovery of impact craters using InSight’s seismometer, the science team gave the lander no more than six weeks of life. One of those weeks has now ticked off.

InSight detects and dates large impact on Mars

InSight's Christmas Eve impact
Click for full image.

Using the data from InSight’s seismometer of a 4 magnitude earthquake on Mars on December 24, 2021, scientists were able to use the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to find the meteorite impact that produced that quake, the largest detected since spacecraft have been visiting Mars. The picture to the right, cropped and reduced to post here and unveiled at yesterday’s press conference, shows the new crater.

The meteoroid is estimated to have spanned 16 to 39 feet (5 to 12 meters) – small enough that it would have burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, but not in Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is just 1% as dense as our planet’s. The impact, in a region called Amazonis Planitia, blasted a crater roughly 492 feet (150 meters) across and 70 feet (21 meters) deep. Some of the ejecta thrown by the impact flew as far as 23 miles (37 kilometers) away.

With images and seismic data documenting the event, this is believed to be one of the largest craters ever witnessed forming any place in the solar system.

This is not the first such impact identified from InSight seismic data, but it is the largest. The white streaks surrounding the crater are thought to be near-surface ice ejected at impact.

The overview map below provides further context, as well as showing us the proximity of this impact to the proposed Starship landing sites on Mars.
» Read more

InSight still hangs in, barely

InSight's power status as of October 22, 2022

A new update on the status of the Mars lander InSight was released today, showing its power output daily through October 22, 2022. The graph to the right shows this update. From the report:

As of October 22, 2022, InSight’s seismometer is collecting data again after being switched off to conserve energy after a recent dust storm. The lander was generating an average of 280 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at 1.45 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

These power levels are very low, so low I am surprised the science team thought it was able to start the seismometer again. It could be they expect the lander to fail any moment, and decided to maximize the data it can get in the little time it has left.

A press conference is planned for Thursday, October 27, 2022 to provide an update on InSight’s future, as well it appears to describe a recent discovery (likely the exact moment some recent impacts took place) based on data from InSight and images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This was already reported in mid-September, but more impacts might have been identified.

It is also possible the MRO images detected some other change on the surface (not an impact) that InSight’s seismometer picked up. If so, the briefing will be far more interesting.

InSight status: Barely hanging on

InSight's power status as of October 19, 2022

The science team for the InSight lander on Mars today posted an update on the power the spacecraft’s dust covered solar panels are producing. I have added that data to my on-going graph of these power levels, to the right. From the update:

On October 19, 2022, InSight was generating an average between 275 and 285 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at 1.5 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

The jump in tau level is due to a large dust storm that developed in September more than two thousand miles away in the southern hemisphere. Though it is so far away, that storm put a lot more dust in the atmosphere above InSight, and forced engineers to shut down all but its most essential functions.

That storm is apparently continuing, and might even be growing. If so, the future of InSight is dim indeed. Any further drop in the amount of power it generates daily will likely make it unable to operate at all, and the mission will end.

InSight’s power levels rise very slightly

InSight's power level through October 8, 2022

In a status report issued today, the science team for the InSight lander on Mars noted a slight increase in the amount of power produced daily by its solar panels. The graph to the right indicates that increase.

On October 8, 2022, InSight was generating an average of 300 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol – an increase after a sharp decline last week from 430 watt-hours per sol to a low of 275 watt-hours per sol.

It appears that the atmosphere has begun to clear from the very large dust storm that occurred more than two thousand miles away. Despite that distance, the storm apparently reduced the available light above InSight significantly, and could take months to clear.

InSight shut down temporarily because of lack of power

InSight's power levels over recent time

Because a dust storm has caused a further decline in the power being generated by InSight’s solar panels, the science team has decided to put the lander into safe mode for the next two weeks in the hope that the air will then clear, allowing its power levels to rise.

The graph to the right shows that drop. From the press release:

By Monday, Oct. 3, the storm had grown large enough and was lofting so much dust that the thickness of the dusty haze in the Martian atmosphere had increased by nearly 40% around InSight. With less sunlight reaching the lander’s panels, its energy fell from 425 watt-hours per Martian day, or sol, to just 275 watt-hours per sol.

InSight’s seismometer has been operating for about 24 hours every other Martian day. But the drop in solar power does not leave enough energy to completely charge the batteries every sol. At the current rate of discharge, the lander would be able to operate only for several weeks. So to conserve energy, the mission will turn off InSight’s seismometer for the next two weeks.

The real problem however is the dust covering the solar panels. If that dust gets thicker due to this storm, the lander will not recover when they power it up in two weeks. It will still generate electricity at this low number, making future operations likely impossible.

InSight’s power level holding steady

InSight's on-going power levels

The Energizer bunny of Mars, the InSight lander, continues to hold on. The engineering team tonight issued another status report, as shown in the graph to the right. For the past week the lander continued to produce 420 watt-hours per day, even though the tau level of dust in the atmosphere increased from 0.8 to 0.85.

The tau level of dust outside of the winter dust season is normally between 0.6 and 0.7. Even though Mars is moving out of winter, that level has increased slightly above InSight. And yet, even with a higher dust content and thus less sunlight, the lander’s dust-covered solar panels are generating power, at a very slightly higher level.

The InSight team had expected the lander to die in early September, at the latest. Instead, it keeps running, thus allowing it to detect on September 5th an impact created by a cluster of three asteroids, the first time scientists have ever pinpointed exactly when such a new impact occurred on Mars.

For the lander to survive for even longer, all it needs is one gust of wind across the solar panels to clean them off. The science team had expected this to happen periodically, based on past experience with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Unfortunately for InSight, it has not yet happened even once since it arrived on Mars in 2018. Nonetheless, it only has to happen once to save the lander.

Stay tuned. All is not yet lost.

InSight’s seismometer detects its first new impact on Mars

Martian impact discovered by InSight
Click for full image.

Using data from InSight’s seismometer that suggested a new impact had occurred at a specific location on September 5, 2022 on Mars, scientists used the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to search and find that impact.

The photo to the right, reduced to post here, is that MRO photo.

The initial impact itself created a small marsquake that was detected by InSight’s seismometer. The instrument recorded seismological data that showed the moment the meteoroid entered Mars’ atmosphere, its explosion into pieces in the atmosphere, and finally, the impact that created a series of at least three craters in the surface.

MRO then flew over the approximate site where the impact was “felt” to look for darkened patches of ground using its Context Camera. After finding this location, HiRISE captured the scene in color. The ground is not actually blue; this enhanced-color image highlights certain hues in the scene to make details more visible to the human eye – in this case, dust and soil disturbed by the impact.

This was thus the first new Martian impact detected based on its actual occurrence, rather than simply finding a change between two photos taken at different times. The latter only tells you a time period when the impact occurred. InSight’s detection here marks the impact’s exact moment.

Nor is this the only such discovery. It appears that InSight detected at least two other impacts (here and here), that only subsequently were linked to MRO impacts. In those cases, the new impact had already been found by MRO, and only afterward were scientists able to identify its seismic vibration in InSight data, thus pinpointing the exact date it took place.

InSight’s power levels rise again

InSight's power levels through September 10th

Based on another status update issued today by the InSight science team, the electricity generated by the Mars lander’s dust-covered solar panels increased again slightly in the past week, going from 410 watt-hours per day to 420 watt-hours per day.

The graph to the right shows the trends since May. The science team had expected the power levels to steadily drop throughout the summer so that by early September the lander would die.

Instead, the power levels remained steady throughout the summer, and have in the past two weeks actually risen slightly, thus extending InSight’s life.

If at any moment a strong gust of wind or dust devil sweeps over InSight, the panels could be blown clear and it would gain a rebirth. The longer it manages to survive, the greater the chance that this might happen.

InSight’s power level goes up!

InSight's power levels as of September 5, 2022

The most recent status update on the Mars lander InSight, released today, shows a slight rise in the amount of power generated by its dust-covered solar panels.

As shown on the graph to the right, on August 27, 2022 the power level was 400 watt-hours generated per Martian day. On September, 5, 2022, the power level was 410 watt-hours per Martian day, the first power increase since late July. At the same time, the dust in the atmosphere continued to clear, going from a tau level of .88 to 0.8. Outside of the winter dust season tau is usually between 0.6 and 0.7.

The slight power increase continues to suggest that the lander’s death might be delayed. At 400 watt-hours per day, it has been able to run its seismometer since the beginning of July. With this slight increase, the chance increases that InSight will finally get that one gust of wind or dust devil that will blow the dust off its solar panels and allow it to recover some power and operate for longer.

InSight power levels continue to hold steady

InSight power levels through August 27, 2022

According to a new update posted today by the InSight science team, the power being generated by the lander’s dust-covered solar panels once again did not decline last week, holding at 400 watt-hours generated per day for the fifth week in a row.

The graph to the right shows the trends since May. The dust in the atmosphere is indicated by the red line, marking what scientists call the tau level. A normal level outside of the winter dust season should be between 0.6 and 0.7 tau. Even though that dust season has been ending, that level has remained high, thus cutting off more of the sunlight that the Mars lander could use to generate the electricity needed by its seismometer.

That the power generated continues to hold steady however suggests that InSight’s seismometer might be able to continue working into September, detecting Martian earthquakes. The scientists had predicted the spacecraft would die sometime around now. Without doubt they are thrilled their prediction appears wrong.

That the lander might last longer also increases the chance that it might experience a wind event, such as a dust devil, that could blow the solar panels clear of dust and save the lander entirely. All it needs is one such event, which sadly has not occurred since InSight landed on Mars in 2018.

InSight power levels remain steady on Mars

InSight's status through August 21, 2022

The InSight science team today released its weekly update on the lander’s ability to generate power from its dust-covered solar panels, I have charted the new numbers, through August 21, 2022, on the graph to the right. From the update:

InSight was generating an average of 400 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, or sol. The tau, or level of dust cover in the atmosphere, was estimated at .88 (typical tau levels outside of dust season range from 0.6-0.7).

For the fourth straight week the daily power level remained steady, not dropping as predicted by engineers to a point in August that the mission would end. As it appears the seismometer can function when the panels produce 400 watt-hours per day, the lander is thus holding its own instead of shutting down.

That the amount of dust in the atmosphere increased slightly is both good and bad news. The good news: Even with slightly more dust, InSight’s power levels did not drop. The bad news: There is still plenty of dust in the air that can settle on the solar panels and further degrade their ability to generate electricity.

InSight’s future is thus a day-to-day thing, though it appears at this moment that it can likely continue to gather earthquake data for another week.

InSight’s power status continues to hold steady on Mars

InSight power status through August 14, 2022

According to a new status update posted today by the science team, the power status for the Mars InSight lander continues to hold steady.

The graph to the right adds the new data, showing that the daily watt hours of power produced each day continues to hold at 400, while the dust in the atmosphere continues to drop towards its normal level of between 0.6 and 0.7 tau during the non-dust seasons.

These new numbers appear to be generally good news. Even though the dust continues to settle out of the atmosphere, it does not appear to be adding dust on the solar panels that would reduce their capability to generate power. Though the science team had predicted that the power levels would cause the mission to end sometime in August, at 400 watts per hour InSight has apparently continued to generate enough electricity to keep its seismometer running for at least another week.

InSight seismometer data suggests no underground ice at landing site

Using a computer model combined with seismometer data gathered by the Mars lander InSight, scientists have concluded that there is little or no underground ice in the equatorial region where InSight sits.

From the paper’s abstract:

We use rock physics models to infer cement properties from seismic velocities. Model results confirm that the upper 300 m of Mars beneath InSight is most likely composed of sediments and fractured basalts. Grains within sediment layers are unlikely to be cemented by ice or other mineral cements. Hence, any existing cements are nodular or formed away from grain contacts. Fractures within the basalt layers could be filled with gas, 2% mineral cement and 98% gas, and no more than 20% ice. Thus, no ice- or liquid water-saturated layers likely exist within the upper 300 m beneath InSight. Any past cement at grain contacts has likely been broken by impacts or marsquakes.

As the lander sits just north of the equator in the red planet’s equatorial zone, which ample orbital data has suggested is a dry region (as shown in the global map below), this result is not a surprise. It does provide further confirmation however of this conclusion, that if there is any water on Mars within 30 degrees latitude of the equator, it will be deep underground, and likely only in certain regions.
» Read more

InSight’s power status holding steady on Mars

InSight's status as of August 9, 2022

Yesterday the InSight science team posted the lander’s ongoing power status, as it has been doing about every week since in June the team announced that they expected power to run out sometime in August, ending the mission.

I have created the graph to the right, showing the data from all those updates, to try to glean the overall trends. The red line indicates the tau level of dust in the atmosphere, essentially telling us how much that dust is blocking light from the Sun. Normally outside of dust season this number should range from 0.6 to 0.7. Since May 17 that dust level has been steadily declining, which thus increases the amount of sunlight reaching the panels.

The blue line marks the amount of power the lander’s panels have been able to produce. The lack of change in this line reveals both good and bad news. The good news is that the power level is holding steady, at a level that allows InSight’s one operating instrument, its seismometer, to continue to function. Should this power level continue to remain stable, that seismometer should be able to operate past August, thus extending the instrument’s life longer than expected.

The bad news is that the power levels are not going up as the dust level is dropping. This suggests that the dust layer on the panels that is preventing them from generating power is actually getting thicker. InSight has still not experienced any puff of Mars’ weak wind capable of blowing dust off those panels. Instead, as the dust settles out of the atmosphere with the end of dust season, some is settling on the panels themselves.

As new updates arrive I will update this graph. Stay tuned. InSight is not yet dead, though the vultures are unfortunately circling overhead.

InSight team decides to shorten lander’s life to operate seismometer longer

The InSight science team has decided to continue to operate the lander’s seismometer through August rather than turning it off at the end of June, even though that longer use will drain InSight’s batteries sooner and kill the lander shortly thereafter.

The previous plan would have allowed the lander to survive through the end of the year, but would have meant no earthquake data would have been gathered after June.

To enable the seismometer to continue to run for as long as possible, the mission team is turning off InSight’s fault protection system. While this will enable the instrument to operate longer, it leaves the lander unprotected from sudden, unexpected events that ground controllers wouldn’t have time to respond to.

“The goal is to get scientific data all the way to the point where InSight can’t operate at all, rather than conserve energy and operate the lander with no science benefit,” said Chuck Scott, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Apparently they have realized that it is now very unlikely that a dust devil will come by and clear the dust from InSight’s solar panels, so keeping the spacecraft alive longer — but getting no data — does not make sense.

InSight likely to shut down by the end of summer

Martian quake map as seen by InSight
Martian quake map as seen by InSight, adapted from this 2021
presentation [pdf]

According to the InSight science team, the Mars lander and its seismometer will likely shut down operations by the end of the summer due to lack of power.

“Towards the end of summer of ’22, we anticipate our seismometer will be turned off, not because we want to turn it off but unfortunately, we don’t have the energy to run it,” Garcia said. She said the team will use it intermittently after that as long as power is available, but by the end of the year the spacecraft is expected to fall silent.

The intermittent readings of the seismometer will be of extremely limited use, as it will then be pure luck whether it detects a quake, and any detection will not provide the true rate of quakes on Mars.

The loss of power is due to dust on the solar panels. The team had hoped a dust devil would come by periodically to blow the panels clean, as happened routinely with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but InSight has not been so lucky.

It appears the safe mode that occurred shortly after InSight detected its largest Mars quake yet on May 10th was very temporary, though right now the seismometer is essentially the only instrument they have power to run.

Overall, this mission has a very spotty history. Its launch was delayed two years when the French attempt to build the seismometer failed. The delay cost NASA’s planetary program $150 million, at a minimum.

Then lander’s second of two main instruments, a German experiment to dig down 16 feet to insert a heat sensor into the ground, failed when its digging tool, dubbed the mole, was unable to penetrate the alien Martian soil.

Fortunately, InSight’s prime instrument, the seismometer (finally completed by JPL) worked, giving us a first look into the structure of Mars’ interior as well as where earthquakes are found on its surface.

InSight detects 5 magnitude Martian quake, the largest detected so far

The seismometer deployed by the Martian lander InSight has now detected its largest quake yet on Mars, with an estimated magnitude of 5.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander has detected the largest quake ever observed on another planet: an estimated magnitude 5 temblor that occurred on May 4, 2022, the 1,222nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. This adds to the catalog of more than 1,313 quakes InSight has detected since landing on Mars in November 2018. The largest previously recorded quake was an estimated magnitude 4.2 detected Aug. 25, 2021.

The timing was very fortunate. Only three days later the power being generated by InSight’s dust-covered solar panels dropped too low, and the lander went into safe mode. Though its mission has been extended through the end of this year, the inability of the solar panels to produce energy because of dust has been predicted to shut down operations sooner. While it might be possible to restart science operations, this most recent safe mode situation could very well be that moment.

Meanwhile, scientists will analyze the data of this most recent large quake to attempt to pinpoint its location. They will also study it to gain a better understanding of the interior structure of Mars.

A quake south of Starship’s prime landing sites on Mars

The lowlands south of Starship's prime landing site
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on February 23, 2022 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Though it shows the largely featureless northern lowland plains of Mars, it is particularly interesting for two reasons.

First, according to the photo’s label this scarp/ridge is apparently near a quake detected by the seismometer placed on Mars by the lander InSight, located about a thousand miles to the southwest. Though no information of the strength of this quake is available, it is likely to have been a small and weak one, interesting mostly because it indicates some small underground instability or a recent small impact on the surface. The image favors the former, as it shows no obvious recent features of change. What it does show is one very intriguing flow feature draping the scarp. As the location is at 34 north latitude in a region where scientists have found a lot of evidence of water ice very close to the surface, the flow could very well be glacial in nature, though dismissing a lava origin would be a mistake.

The second reason this location is of interest is what lies relatively nearby, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

InSight scientists publish paper describing last year’s big Martian quakes

Figure 5: global map of located Martian quakes

The InSight science team has now published a paper [pdf] describing in detail what they gleaned from the two large earthquakes the lander detected on Mars last year, measuring 4.1 and 4.2 magnitudes.

The map above, figure 5 of their paper, marks their best estimate of the quakes’ locations, dubbed S0976a and S1000a. From the caption:

Mars surface relief map showing InSight’s location (orange triangle), the location of other located mars-quakes (magenta dots) that cluster around 30° distance, close to Cerberus Fossae, and S0976a, located within Valles Marineris just north of Sollis Planum. Because no back azimuth can be determined for S1000a, its location is predicted to be somewhere within the shaded region between 107° and 147° from InSight. The event’s preferred distance (116°) is marked with the white dashed line. The black dotted lines mark radii around InSight up to 80°.

A review of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution images of that part of Valles Marineris where S096a occurred will likely uncover a whole bunch taken since last August, all attempting to detect any actual surface changes produced by quake. I think I’ll do that review, and see if I can spot something.

The paper also notes the uniqueness of S1000a, which lasted 94 minutes, the longest so far detected on Mars. The complexity of its signal also makes locating it difficult, though the most likely possible locations — indicated by the white dashed line in the map above — crosses through the Tharsis Bulge where Mars’ biggest volcanoes are found.

Sadly, InSight will likely shut down before the end of this year due to loss of power, so until another seismometer is sent there no further Martian quakes will be detected.

InSight resumes limited science operations

InSight on February 5th resumed science operations, reactivating its seismometer to record Martian quakes.

As I suspected in my previous InSight update, the lander’s life is still coming to an end.

The mission, though, has been grappling with a gradual decline in the spacecraft’s power because of dust accumulating on its solar arrays. Unlike the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, whose arrays were regularly cleaned by atmospheric activity, dust has continued to accumulate on InSight’s arrays. At a meeting of MEPAG in June 2021, Banerdt projected that power levels would drop below that needed to keep the spacecraft alive in the spring of 2022.

That date has been pushed out slightly, but he said the long-term outlook for the lander still does not look promising. “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,” he said.

They might still squeeze a month or two more from the lander, but unless they are very lucky and a dust devil blows across it, the end is coming.

Contact restored with InSight after dust storm

The InSight science team has regained communications with the lander on Mars following a dust storm that caused it to shut down all operations entirely.

Though the tweet from the science team says the space craft is out of safe mode, that really doesn’t appear to be the case. Safe mode is a condition where a robot ceases all science operations, hunkers down, and awaits further orders. All that has happened here is that the engineers have regained contact after communications were lost on January 7th. No science is being done.

The resumption of communications is excellent news, however. They must now access how much power the lander’s solar panels are generating to see if they can turn InSight’s main instrument, its seismometer, back on. Those panels might be badly covered with dust, preventing operations.

InSight recovering from safe mode caused by Martian dust storm

Engineers have been able to regain contact with the Mars lander InSight after a Martian dust storm that put it in safe mode and cut off all communications for three days.

The mission’s team reestablished contact with InSight Jan. 10, finding that its power was holding steady and, while low, was unlikely to be draining the lander’s batteries. Drained batteries are believed to have caused the end of NASA’s Opportunity rover during an epic series of dust storms that blanketed the Red Planet in 2018.

The lander remains however in safe mode. The engineers hope they can resume limited science operations in about a week. Even before this even the limitations on InSight’s power generation due to dust on its solar panels had forced the science team to only gather data from the seismometer, and even then had to suspend all data gathering periodically.

Though the lander has survived this dust storm, it is presently unclear how much dust remains on its panels and thus how much power it can generate. If it only can generate enough power to keep the lander from freezing, but not do any science, it might be time to shut it down entirely.

1 2 3