NASA's InSight Mars mission comes to an end as all contact is lost
After over four years on Mars, NASA's InSight lander has been declared dead. Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California was unable to reestablish contact with the robotic spacecraft on two consecutive attempts, leaving engineers to conclude that the lander's solar-powered batteries are exhausted.
Launched on May 5, 2018 atop an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the InSight lander was tasked with making the first detailed geological study of the Red Planet. After touching down on the Elysium Planitia region of Mars on November 26, 2018, the lander deployed a series of instruments. Among these was a highly sensitive seismograph, which was part of the last experiment still functioning as NASA engineers rationed the lander's power during its final months of life.
A more spectacular experiment involved a self-hammering spike called the "mole," that was intended to drive a thermal sensor deep into the ground to measure the heat in the interior of the planet. Unfortunately the device was designed to operate in soft, sandy soil, and was unable to cope with the clumpy soil at the landing site.
Despite this setback, InSight sent back a wealth of data about the geology of Mars, including the rate and intensity of marsquakes – but the solar panels used to power InSight proved to be its undoing. Dust blown by Martian winds accumulated on the panels until they were functioning at only 27% capacity by February 2021. The dust soon reached such a thickness that the batteries were no longer capable of recharging properly.
To extend the mission, NASA rationed power to the systems to keep the primary experiments working, while reserving enough electricity to warm the electronics through the freezing Martian nights. However, on December 15, 2022, InSight made its last contact. NASA continued monitoring via its Deep Space Network (DSN) and Mars orbiter spacecraft, but the silence since then shows that the mission has come to an end.
"I watched the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight conducted is cause for celebration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The seismic data alone from this Discovery Program mission offers tremendous insights not just into Mars but other rocky bodies, including Earth."