This may be the last image ever sent by NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft.
After a four-year mission to the Red Planet, the robotic lander – which broke the first “selfie” ever taken on Mars – is going out.
Heavy windblown dust coated InSight’s solar panels, with Nasa expecting to lose contact with the probe soon.
The US space agency posted the news on the craft’s Twitter page, saying, “My power is really low so this might be the last image I can send.
“Don’t worry about me though: my time here has been both productive and peaceful.
“If I can keep talking to my mission team, I will – but I’ll be signing here soon. Thanks for sticking with me.”
NASA announced the £630million InSight project 10 years ago as a follow-up to the success of its Curiosity rover.
The InSight lander’s goal was to find out how Mars formed, with the aim of giving scientists a better understanding of how rocky bodies like Earth were created.
Prior to that, the spacecraft had to successfully complete the 300 million mile journey to Mars before enduring “seven minutes of terror” to come back to the surface.
Only 40% of missions to the Red Planet made it through the thin atmosphere safely.
A combination of a heat shield, parachute and retro rockets helped slow InSight from 13,000 mph to 5 mph in just six minutes to allow it to land on Elysium Planitia, a featureless plain just to the north of the location of the Curiosity rover.
Once deployed, the craft drove a temperature probe five meters into the surface to measure the heat coming from the planet’s core.
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Five months after landfall, InSight’s earthquake monitor registered a faint rumble. NASA scientists concluded that it came from inside the planet, calling it “Marsquake”.
One of InSight’s main achievements was to establish that the Red Planet is indeed seismically active, recording more than 1,300 earthquakes.
The recording launched a new area of research of “Martian seismology”, NASA said, which could help learn more about the formation of rocky planets.
He also measured the seismic waves generated by meteor impacts, revealed the thickness of the planet’s outer crust, the size and density of its inner core, and the structure of the mantle that lies between the two.
But there was also time for fun. The craft took the first-ever “selfie” taken on Mars, using a camera attached to its robotic arm to send a photo all the way to Earth.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case.
But hearing from InSight again is unlikely, experts say.
The stationary three-legged probe last communicated with Earth on December 15.
InSight has changed our understanding of the solar system
Where flashy wheeled Mars rovers go boldly, InSight sat boldly. The geologist robot has never driven on the surface of Martial in search of exciting discoveries. His job – as the first mission ever conceived to study the interior of another planet – was to sit back and listen to the action. And it happened.
During its 4 years of life on Mars, InSight recorded more than 1300 “marsquakes”. Each tremor, serving as an ultrasound of the hidden interior of the planet. Using InSight, scientists found that Mars had a liquid metal core proportionally much larger than Earth’s. It also had key differences in its molten rocky mantle. These findings help explain why Mars is not volcanic, despite being so early in its 4.5 billion year history. Also, why he lost his magnetic field.
But the biggest breakthrough for the lonely and patient listening post came on Christmas Eve last year. InSight’s seismometer recorded what scientists at the time thought was a major earthquake.
It wasn’t until the following year that scientists on another robotic mission, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, spotted a new impact crater on the surface of the Red Planet. What InSight had “heard” was a huge meteorite crashing into the surface of Mars. After the discovery, “everything clicked,” says Professor Tom Pike of Imperial College London, one of InSight’s science team members.
Knowing exactly what caused the tremor and where and when, they were able to refine their previous measurements in ways they had not been able to by simply listening to mysterious rumblings coming from inside Mars. This impact, one of many, has dramatically improved the quality of science provided by InSight. And it almost didn’t happen. The probe’s mission was originally only for two years.
‘We were very lucky,’ says Professor Pike. “It was beyond the expected lifetime of the mission. Each of these events has been valuable in adding another dimension to the information we have. It’s actually only in the last few months that we have enough information to build a fairly complex picture of what’s going on inside Mars – and we’ll continue to work on that data.
There’s a chance – albeit a slim one – that a storm could blow dust off InSight’s solar panels and give it new battery life. Otherwise, the dead probe will gradually be buried by the planet it came to study. But the data he collected during his short scientific life will be studied for years and has already changed our understanding of the solar system.