NASA hasn’t heard from its InSight lander in 5 days. It could have run out and died on Mars.

The InSight lander photographs one of its solar arrays in December 2018, left, and May 2022, right.NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is not responding to communications from Earth, likely due to low power levels.

  • Dust has accumulated on the lander’s solar panels and has slowly absorbed its energy over the past two years.

  • InSight has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars and revealed the planet’s inner layers.

NASA suspects its $813 million InSight lander has succumbed to dust on the surface of the red planet, ending its four-year mission of listening for earthquakes on Mars, dust devils and meteor impacts.

InSight’s solar panels have accumulated so much Martian dirt that it can no longer produce enough energy for all of its science operations. It appears power levels have dropped so low that the lander can no longer communicate with mission control, NASA announced Monday night.

“On December 18, 2022, NASA’s InSight did not respond to communications from Earth,” the agency said in a statement. “The lander’s power has been declining for months, as expected, and it is assumed that InSight may have reached its end of operations. It is not known what caused its power to change; the last time the mission contacted the vehicle space was December 15, 2022.”

NASA continued, “The mission will continue to try to contact InSight.”

The scientists and engineers behind the mission — a platform with a robotic arm and array of scientific instruments — have been battling InSight’s steadily declining power levels for about two years. The designers had relied on gusts of wind to periodically blow dust off the solar panels. But the open plain where InSight landed wasn’t very windy.

Insight lander space science platform robot with two deployed octagonal solar arrays inside a cleanroom with technicians

The solar arrays on NASA’s InSight lander are deployed for a test at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, April 30, 2015.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

InSight has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes on Mars but failed to pierce the Martian crust

Since it landed on Mars in November 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 Martian earthquakes, more than 10,000 dust devils, and meteor atmospheric and seismic waves hitting the planet.

The earthquakes have revealed that the Martian crust is drier and more broken up by asteroid impacts than scientists thought⁠—more like the moon than Earth—and has at least two sublayers, wrapped around a large liquid core. They also pointed to a potential chamber of magma – molten volcanic rock – deep underground.

Because a planet’s entire history is encoded in its inner layers, InSight’s findings will help researchers revisit their models of how rocky planets form and ultimately inform the study of worlds that could harbor life beyond our solar system.

marsquake artist concept

This artist’s concept is a simulation of what seismic waves from a Martian earthquake might look like as they move through different layers of the Martian interior.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ETH Zurich/ Van Driel

But the lander has struggled to reach its full potential. One of his tools – a probe called “the mole” – was unable to dig into the Martian crust. NASA had to abandon that project in 2021.

Since then, the red planet’s lingering dust has repeatedly forced NASA to put InSight into temporary hibernation, disrupting science activities.

The InSight team had previously estimated that the lander would burn out and die between late October 2022 and January 2023. In recent weeks, mission leaders had expected the lander to maintain communications into January.

insight mars lander illustration with labeled instruments and solar panels

An illustration of the InSight Mars lander.NASA/JPL-Caltech; Insiders

InSight has looked where no mission has gone before: deep inside Mars

NASA created the InSight mission to take Mars’ vital signs: its pulse in the form of earthquakes, its temperature via the mole probe, and its “reflexes” via a radio experiment that measured the planet’s wobble along the its axis and has provided insight into Mars’ deep core.

While previous landers and rovers studied the planet’s surface, InSight was designed to probe its interior.

The robot completed its primary mission in 2020, earning it an extended mission through December 2022 that allowed it to capture the most dramatic earthquakes on Mars.

NASA InSight lander on Mars

An artist’s illustration of the InSight lander on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Before InSight, the interior of Mars was kind of a big question mark,” Bruce Banerdt, who leads the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a press conference in May. “Now we can actually draw a quantitatively accurate picture of the interior of Mars.”

A key piece of that picture is missing: Mars’ core temperature.

InSight’s mole tool was designed to dig 10 feet into the Martian crust and measure the heat escaping from the planet’s core. This would have allowed scientists to trace the history of planet formation and evolution over the past 4.6 billion years, a history that would help scientists trace Martian water and possibly life.

mars insight mole heat probe skitch

“The mole”, halfway from his hole, October 26, 2019.NASA/JPL-Caltech

But in February 2019, the mole found itself bouncing on solid, impenetrable ground. He couldn’t hammer into the crust. The InSight team spent the next two years troubleshooting, sending new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to assist the mole, and anxiously awaiting photos that could show the progress.

In 2021, NASA announced it was abandoning the mole.

mars intuition mole

InSight’s thermal probe, or mole, came about halfway out of the dug hole on Oct. 26, 2019.NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It was just a massive effort across the board, and one that we never expected,” Sue Smrekar, an InSight lead scientist who spent 10 years working on the mole, told Insider.

No other Mars mission in NASA’s near future can make the core temperature measurements for which the mole was designed.

“This was our best attempt to get that data,” Smrekar said, adding, “From my personal point of view, it’s super disappointing and scientifically it’s also a very significant leak. So it really looks like a huge disappointment.”

Part of the reason they couldn’t continue the mole effort was that InSight was starting to wear out. Thick dust had built up on the solar arrays, and NASA needed to conserve the lander’s scarce power for guaranteed operations to return science results.

NASA had no way to clear the dust

As of May 2022, InSight was producing only one-tenth of the daily energy generated at the start of the mission.

the insight graph shows dust accumulation and power loss

InSight’s solar panels produced about 5,000 watt-hours every Martian day, or sol, after the spacecraft landed in November 2018. But by the spring of 2022, enough dust had settled on the panels to produce only about 500 watt-hours every sol.NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA engineers have been trying to remove the dust. The team tasked InSight with shaking the solar panels, but that didn’t cancel them.

Then they tasked the robot with picking up the dirt and slowly sliding it past the solar panels. The idea was that some of the large grains of sand would get caught in the wind, bouncing off the solar panels and carrying stubborn dust with them.

It worked, a little. The first attempt added about 30 watt hours to daily energy production. The team conducted six such dirt-dripping operations, which generated enough energy to keep the seismometer running smoothly.

It didn’t last long. A few months after giving up the mole, engineers had to temporarily shut down InSight’s science instruments, reducing the lander to only essential operations to keep it functional as it weathered Mars’ harsh winter with rationed power.

In 2022, InSight’s power levels dropped enough to activate that failsafe mode at least three times.

InSight isn’t the first robot on Mars to succumb to dust. NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover went out of communication during a dust storm in 2018 and never came back online.

NASA’s most recent Mars missions, the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, are nuclear-powered. They don’t need sunlight to stay operational.

InSight’s mission may be over, but there are many new discoveries to come from its data.

“There’s been so much data coming in that it’s actually been difficult to fully take all the information that’s out there,” Anna Mittelholz, a planetary scientist at Harvard University, previously told Insider. “So I think a lot of studies will result, even after InSight is no longer operational.”

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