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Scientists pay tribute to the Mars lander

Scientists pay tribute to the Mars lander

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InSight's second selfie on Mars, a 14-image mosaic, taken in Spring 2019.

NASA said today the InSight lander mission has lost power and ended, four years and a month after the probe landed on Mars.

The lander meant to reveal the interior of Mars has slowly suffocated under a relentless drift of Martian dust that blanketed its solar panels. The last contact was on December 15, and NASA announced Monday that the lander was not responding to communications.

InSight imaged the surface of Mars and used its seismometer to infer elements of Martian interior such as the size of its mantle and the composition of its core. Over four years, the lander detected meteorite impacts, seismic marsquakes, and a passing dust devil. Early on, the mission struggled with its mole, a thermal probe designed to bury itself underground to measure the planet’s temperature. Unfortunately, the Martian regolith turned out to be a more difficult substance than NASA had anticipated.

The expected end of the mission was delayed several times because the lander was able to hold out despite its debilitating situation. NASA scientists performed numerous makeshift operations to extend InSight’s lifespan, from pouring Martian soil onto the solar panels to turning off cameras and safety modes to use the remaining battery for scientific operations.

In all, during its 1,440 sols on Mars, InSight detected over 1,300 marsquakes and sent nearly 7,000 images back to Earth.

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When things looked bleak for InSight, I reached out to scientists working both on the lander and with the lander’s data. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of this mission.

InSight's last selfie on Mars.

Natalia Wojcicka, Seismologist at Imperial College London:

I was fortunate to work on InSight during my PhD which started just before landing in 2018. It was an incredible experience to be part of the mission at such an early stage in my career.

InSight has achieved much during its operation, giving us unprecedented insight into the properties of Martian crust and the composition of the core and mantle. My personal highlight is the very first seismic evidence of a meteorite impact on Mars. These data have shed new light on the properties of impact-generated seismic waves, proving that seismology is a powerful tool for studying impacts of great value to the broader planetary science community.

I have no doubt that this is just the beginning of planetary seismology and the data from InSight will continue to be processed for many years to come. Most importantly, I think InSight has shown how exciting and valuable off-earth geophysics can be. I hope to see more seismological missions to both Mars and other planets in the near future.

“Most of all, I think InSight has shown how exciting and valuable off-earth geophysics can be.”

Savas Ceylan, geophysicist at ETH Zurich:

InSight is a nearly complete geophysical observatory on Mars. As the Marsquake Service, we have routinely monitored the seismic data transmitted by the InSight seismometers to identify and locate tremors. For us there was never a dull moment when Mars didn’t surprise us. InSight has been on Mars for four years. The nominal mission duration was two Earth years. However, thanks to the spectacular work of our engineers and mission ground control units, we are way beyond that. To date, the lander and sensors have performed exceptionally well.

The seismic data collected so far is of incredibly high quality and completeness. Having the seismometer package on the planet’s surface certainly helped. Using the data collected, we now have a much better understanding of the crust under InSight’s location, mantle composition, and core size. I can confidently say that we now have a better understanding of the Red Planet, from the atmosphere to the core.

This is just the beginning. Scientists will continue to analyze the data collected by InSight for decades to come. We will continue to find out about the planet. Plus, there are sure to be lessons to be learned for future mission designs.

“There was never a dull moment when Mars didn’t surprise us… I can say with confidence that we now have a better understanding of the Red Planet, from the atmosphere to the core.”

Brigitte Knapmeyer-Endrun, seismologist at the University of Cologne:

Mars has kept things really exciting for us – after we thought we had a basic understanding of seismicity, the expanded mission in the second year of Mars brought some surprises, including the first events more than 100 degrees away from InSight, and forward recently the largest marsquake ever detected with a magnitude of 5.0. Analysis of this data will certainly take years, if not decades (like the Apollo seismograms of the moon).

We were able to achieve all of the initial mission objectives and once we understood a bit better what the data from Mars looks like and that it may not be quite as similar to Earth or what was modeled before landing, as we had hoped, everyone has adapted and found ways to make the most of the data provided by InSight. This even included high school students analyzing seismograms from Mars as many countries (not my own unfortunately) already have seismology in their curricula and could include InSight as a special case which I thought was a great idea for outreach. At the moment, as a science team, we are still analyzing these distant and great events and getting more and more information about Mars, which is really fascinating and amazing.

After the expanded mission has brought us so many new and exciting data and discoveries, it is sad to know that there will be no more data to come in the future. But there is still a lot to analyze and understand in the data we already have and it was a really successful mission! I feel privileged to have been a part of this for more than 9 years.

As a legacy, I hope that InSight has put planetary seismology back on the page. Some of the PIs have literally waited decades to place a seismometer on Mars. After the Apollo seismometers on the moon and the Viking experiments on Mars, all mostly in the 1970s, there wasn’t really a focus on seismology at NASA. I believe the InSight results show that even if you have a single seismometer to cover the entire planet and even land where it best meets the technical requirements and you don’t know where seismic activity is going to be, it will be much to learn about tectonics, internal structure, and also the interaction with the atmosphere, which we could never get from other experiments and which we cannot deduce from orbital measurements alone.

While the automatic placement of a highly sensitive broadband instrument on the planet’s surface was quite laborious, it was well worth it in this case, and in other cases there might even be easier ways. Dragonfly and the Farside Seismic Suite on Artemis may already be pointing to a revival in planetary seismology, and I’m very excited to see what they will teach us.

“…it’s sad to know that there won’t be any more dates coming in the future. But there is still a lot to analyze and understand in the data we already have.”

Sanne Cottaar, seismologist at the University of Cambridge:

While many a rover is already moving on the surface of Mars, InSight has been sitting there for a long time [four years], as quietly as possible, and its seismometer has been listening for signals from the atmosphere and distant marsquakes. The waves picked up by these marsquakes reveal seismic activity and deformation on Mars, as well as information about the deep structure through which they propagate. Peering into another planet in this way was both a technical and a scientific victory.

As a ground-based seismologist, I’ve been amazed at what scientists have achieved with the data from InSight. On Earth, our techniques rely heavily on having many seismic stations, but on Mars, scientists have had to adjust to having only one seismic station. In addition, scientists had to understand the noise and artifacts visible in the data to uncover the often subtle signals.

Nonetheless, they were able to detect over a thousand marsquakes, generally quite small and some quite distant. Understanding the locations, depths, and causes of this seismicity is still an ongoing endeavor, but it shows that while Mars does not have plate tectonics like Earth, it is still deforming in significant ways. The scientists also detected waves reflected from the Martian core. By combining these with other mantle-propagating waves, they were able to uncover the deep seismic structure that provides insight into the composition and temperature of the Martian mantle. Understanding the layers of Mars is used in models of how Mars formed as a rocky planet, why Mars lost its magnetic field, and how Mars’ distinctive hemispherical topography formed.

Recently, Mars provided InSight with a final standing ovation in the form of a magnitude 5 Marsquake. This is by far the largest Marsquake observed, and it certainly corrects our idea of ​​how seismically active Mars is. It’s exciting to see what scientists can do with the waves from this quake. The occurrence and impact of this Marsquake could pave the way to one day sending multiple seismometers to Mars to continue Insight’s legacy.

“Peerking into another planet in this way was both a technical and a scientific victory.”

More: The best photos of Mars in 2022

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