NASA ends Mars InSight lander mission, with Aerojet participating in tributes

One of the last selfies from the InSight lander was sent back from Mars in April. (NASA photo)

Four years after engineers hailed the InSight robotic spacecraft’s landing on Mars, NASA today declared an end to its $830 million earthquake-sensing mission.

In a mission update, NASA said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control team failed to contact the lander in two consecutive attempts, which had previously been set as a criterion for ending the mission. Dust had built up on the spacecraft’s solar arrays, and mission planners concluded that the batteries had finally run out. The last time NASA heard of Mars InSight was December 15th.

JPL’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen for signals from the spacecraft, but further contacts are considered unlikely.

Those involved in the mission chose to focus on InSight’s accomplishments rather than its setbacks. InSight’s primary purpose was to record seismic readings from within the Red Planet. The mission detected 1,319 earthquakes in all, including earthquakes caused by meteor impacts. In May, the spacecraft’s seismometer recorded the largest earthquake ever detected on a planet other than Earth.

“I have witnessed the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight is conducting is cause for celebration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate of the NASA. “The seismic data alone from this Discovery Program mission offers tremendous insights into not only Mars but other rocky bodies as well, including Earth.”

The InSight lander was also equipped with a self-hammering tip, dubbed “the mole,” designed to delve up to 16 feet below the surface and measure the internal heat of Mars. The sensor-equipped mole was only able to dig to a shallow depth, however, due to the lumpy nature of the soil at the landing site in Elysium Planitia.

Aerojet’s Rocketdyne facility in Redmond, Washington built the thruster system that drove the three-legged lander upon its landing in November 2018, as well as thrusters for other phases of flight.

“From launch to landing on Mars, the propulsion of the Aerojet Rocketdyne has been a key factor @NASAInSight journey to the red planet, the company said in a farewell tweet.

Aerojet Rocketdyne set to go through a different kind of transition: This week, California-based L3Harris Technologies announced an agreement to acquire Aerojet in an all-cash transaction valued at $4.7 billion, including net debt . The deal is expected to close in 2023, subject to customary conditions, including regulatory approvals.

In 2020, Lockheed Martin closed a $4.4 billion deal to acquire Aerojet, but that plan was abandoned in February after the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit to block the acquisition due to antitrust concerns.

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