NASA's InSight Mars lander is metal-knee deep in an energy crisis, according to an initial report from Insider.
Worth $800 million, the robotic lander initially touched down in a Martian plain called Elysium Planitia in 2018, and has in its lifespan detected more than 500 Mars quakes, launched the study of the Red Planet's core to new depths, and monitored the passage of more than 10,000 dust devils.
However, this long list of scientific breakthroughs may come to a sudden end as the unforgiving coldness of Mars' weather could bring all operations to a permanent halt.
As of writing, the InSight lander is in hibernation mode while NASA engineers work to keep it from losing what's left of its precious life.
NASA's InSight could weather the Martian winter, and recharge
InSight's landing area is unique. Called Elysium Planitia, it lacks the powerful wind gusts that NASA's Perseverance rover enjoys. Wind gusts are also called "cleaning events," since they blow accumulating Martian dust off of the solar panels of NASA robots. Without this natural wind, the dust builds into a thick, sun-blocking layer — and this is what happened to InSight, leaving it practically incapable of absorbing sunlight to generate more energy.
In February, InSight's solar panels generated roughly 27% of their total energy capacity — which is when winter comes in Elysium Planitia. So NASA deliberately ordered InSight to enter "hibernation mode," which turns off varying instruments every day. But soon the robot will be forced to shut off all functions unnecessary for survival.
However, there's hope. In halting all scientific operations, the InSight lander should be able to spare enough crucial power to maintain a warm environment for its systems to last through the deathly-cold nights on Mars — when temperatures plummet to negative 130°F (-90°C).
"The amount of power available over the next few months will really be driven by the weather," said Insight's Project Manager Chuck Scott, in an official statement. We're nearly halfway through the robot's planned hibernation period, but while InSight appears good-to-go for now, the risk of a potentially fatal power loss has not subsided in the least. If the robot's batteries die, it could spell doom for the intrepid lander.
"We would be hopeful that we'd be able to bring it back to life, especially if it's not asleep or dead for a long period of time," said InSight's Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt, in an Insider report. "But that would be a dicey situation." NASA plans to restart InSight's full operations once the Red Planet wings closer to the sun in July of this year. If it pulls through the harrowing winter weather of Mars, the robotic lander might continue listening for quakes and studying weather into 2022.
Random dust storm on Mars could spell doom for NASA's InSight
InSight's lack of power influenced NASA's decision to abandon the lander's "mole" this January. It was designed to burrow into the surface and measure the temperatures deep inside the crust of Mars — data sorely needed to grasp the deep history of the Red Planet, in addition to its internal structure. But scientists are having to surrender access to more data while the lander shuts down its instruments — with weather measurements becoming rare, and quake signals expected to cease in the next month or so.
Banderdt thins the lander might miss some big ones, too — but it's better to save the entire lander than sacrifice all future measurements for one alone. If or when InSight loses battery power, explained the scientist, "it's a good zombie spacecraft" — which means it will actively recharge and restart once it has access to sunlight.
"The problem with that scenario is that in the meantime, the spacecraft is very, very cold," added Banderdt. "And this is happening during the coldest part of the year for the spacecraft. A lot of the electronics is pretty delicate."
"And it's, unfortunately, pretty likely that something would be damaged by the cold."
While the signs point to doom and gloom for NASA's InSight lander, it could get worse. If a random dust storm flares up in the next four or five months, even more dust might pile up onto InSight's solar panels. Lucky for the robot, this isn't dust-storm season. "We think we're pretty well off, but Mars is unpredictable," added Banerdt. "We never know exactly what's going to happen."