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Dusty InSight Mars Lander Takes Its Final Selfie – Smithsonian Magazine

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The Red Planet probe will likely stop operating sometime later this year
Sarah Kuta
Daily Correspondent
NASA’s InSight Mars lander has taken what will likely be its final selfie on the Red Planet. The photo shows a mounting layer of Martian dust that’s engulfing its solar panels, forcing the robot to end its exploratory mission.
The space agency shared InSight’s latest self-portrait this week, also showing it alongside the lander’s first selfie in 2018 in a powerful GIF that shows the differences between the two. In the 2018 photo, the lander is mostly clean, with sharp light-and-dark contrasts between its various components. But in the April 2022 selfie, now caked in so much rust-colored dust, InSight nearly blends in with its Martian surroundings.
A dusty self-portrait.@NASAInSight took what is likely to be its final selfie on April 24. In the GIF, you can see the spacecraft’s first selfie in December 2018 and its last one where it’s covered in Martian dust. https://t.co/gvCNyRPnzC pic.twitter.com/CcN2Qzg90d
Dust is a big problem for InSight, which runs on solar power. As more and more Martian dust piles up, sunlight is blocked from reaching InSight’s power-generating solar panels. NASA officials said at a press conference earlier this month that InSight would likely stop operating by the end of this year because of this accumulating dust and dwindling power.
Engineers came up with a creative, MacGyver-esque way for InSight to remove some of the dust in the past. The lander scooped Martian sand onto itself. Then, when the Martian wind blew, it swept the grains of sand across the panels, picking up tiny particles of dust along the way and clearing off InSight’s solar panels.
InSight could still get lucky if a powerful dust devil passes by in the near future, cleaning off the solar panels, but that doesn’t seem likely, so NASA is preparing for the end. At the beginning of its mission, InSight produced about 5,000 watt-hours of energy each sol (Martian day). Today, that number has dropped down to 500 watt-hours.
InSight first touched down on the Red Planet in November 2018 and has spent the last three-and-a-half years gathering insightful data about Mars’ geology and seismology.
With a highly sensitive seismometer, InSight detected tectonic activity and geologic shifting—also known as marsquakes—as well as vibrations from other sources, including meteorite impacts and dust storms. The lander has detected more than 1,313 marsquakes, including a massive magnitude 5.0 quake earlier this year, which is the largest ever detected on another planet.
Using a special “mole” heat probe, the lander also attempted to dig down into the planet’s surface to take its internal temperature. But Martian soil did not create enough friction for the probe to reach the right depth, thus forcing NASA to eventually give up on that part of the mission.
To take a “selfie,” which is actually several different images that have been stitched together, InSight has to move its robotic arm several times. With its dwindling supply of power, InSight will move the arm into “retirement pose,” a final resting position shaped like an inverted V, per NASA.
As Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, put it earlier this month at NASA’s press conference, the lander is leaving behind “quite a legacy.” And as its mission on Mars comes to a close, it seems even InSight is getting a little sentimental.
“Before losing more solar energy, I took some time to take in my surroundings and snapped my final selfie before I rest my arm and camera permanently in the stowed position,” NASA tweeted from InSight’s Twitter account.
“Before losing more solar energy, I took some time to take in my surroundings and snapped my final selfie before I rest my arm and camera permanently in the stowed position,” NASA tweeted from InSight’s Twitter account.
Sarah Kuta | READ MORE
Sarah Kuta is a writer and editor based in Longmont, Colorado. She covers history, science, travel, food and beverage, sustainability, economics and other topics.
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