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NASA retires Mars InSight mission after it enters ‘dead bus’ condition

So long and thanks for all the science

As expected, NASA’s Mars InSight lander has run out of energy, leaving the space agency no alternative but to end the mission.

“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’,” reads NASA’s end-of-mission announcement.

The aerospace agency will keep trying to contact InSight, just in case, but has not heard from it since December 15th. The chances of the lander resuming operations are small.

And getting smaller every day because the cause of its problems – fine dust coating its solar panels and reducing their efficiency, thereby denying its batteries of energy – won’t go away.

Not even Martian wind help to keep the panels clean. InSight’s managers devised a cunning tactic to improve the situation: using the lander’s robot arm to pick up soil and pebbles and scatter them on the panels so that their descent would provide a little cleaning action.

Martian wind is not completely useless

Mars’ winds couldn’t keep InSight clean, but just three days before InSight was decommissioned the journal Nature Astronomy published an article that argues Martian winds are sufficiently strong to power wind turbines that would provide energy to a future human presence on the red planet.

The robot arm was also adapted for another problem InSight faced.

The lander’s star instrument was a “mole,” a spike designed to hammer itself five meters into Marian soil to help InSight understand the planet’s interior.

“Designed for the loose, sandy soil seen on other missions, the mole could not gain traction in the unexpectedly clumpy soil around InSight,” the agency’s farewell post states. The mole “eventually buried its 16-inch (40-centimeter) probe just slightly below the surface.” InSight’s arm helped to bury the mole to that depth.

NASA’s farewell post includes tributes to InSight, the team that built and operated it, and the science the lander performed.

“With InSight, seismology was the focus of a mission beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo missions, when astronauts brought seismometers to the Moon,” said Philippe Lognonné of Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, principal investigator of InSight’s seismometer. “We broke new ground, and our science team can be proud of all that we’ve learned along the way.”

“InSight has more than lived up to its name. As a scientist who’s spent a career studying Mars, it’s been a thrill to see what the lander has achieved, thanks to an entire team of people across the globe who helped make this mission a success,” said Laurie Leshin, director of JPL. “Yes, it’s sad to say goodbye, but InSight’s legacy will live on, informing and inspiring.”

Space is hard. But also inspiring. And InSight has proven both, yet again. ®

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