Here’s the happy part: For over four years, a funky-looking spaceship has been doing something remarkable. It was in many ways just another robot, a combination of rugged materials, circuitry, and sensors with a pair of solar panels protruding like wings on an insect. But this particular robot listened to the ground shake on Mars. He felt mars tremors under his little mechanical feet.
NASA and European space agencies designed the spacecraft to study these Martian earthquakes in detail. Mission leaders, in their seemingly endless ability to coin torturous acronym names for space-related projects, called it Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — or InSight, for short. Once on Mars, InSight couldn’t go anywhere; it was a lander, not a rover, so the mission was rooted where it had touched down. Every image the robot transmitted home showed the same cinnamon-colored dusty expanse, but behind the inconspicuous photograph, InSight waited for the earthquakes to arrive.
Here’s the sad part: InSight stopped calling home this month. The mission, NASA concluded last week, had run out of power. (Who said space exploration wasn’t relevant?) Dust collected on these insect-like solar panels all year round, dimming the lander’s power supply until he can’t even wake up.
InSight’s end sparked a series of dismal reports, with sweet praise for the little lander. We humans can’t help but anthropomorphize robots, especially those we’ve sent to other worlds in our solar system, tasked with absorbing all the wonders for us until they don’t. can more. (It didn’t help that when the time came, NASA tweeted from the account of the mission in the voice of the dying lander“My power is really low, so this might be the last image I can send.”)
The sappy reaction felt very poignant this time around. A lander is less flashy, and perhaps less interesting, than a rover. It’s easier to craft a gripping and heartwarming story about a machine that roams the surface of an alien world and surveys the landscape with the delight of a small child finding a cool rock. It’s even easier to hover over a small helicopter on Mars, which first flew last year. Even though the stationary InSight was doing historic work – studying the rumble of a world beyond Earth for the first time since Apollo astronauts took seismometers to the Moon – it seemed like a secondary character in the Mars missions cast. There is no space robot that I wanted to anthropomorphize further.
Mars hasn’t been easy with InSight. Take the case of the ground snafu. The lander arrived on Mars in late 2018 with an instrument designed to hammer the surface to measure the heat from within. But no matter how hard InSight (and its stewards at home) tried, the instrument wouldn’t sink into the ground. Based on their understanding of the terrain of Mars, the scientists expected InSight to encounter fine, sandy soil at its landing site at Elysium Planitia, a flat plain near the equator. Instead, the ground was lumpy, providing little friction for the tool to work properly.
Scientists and engineers spent two years trying to maneuver the instrument deeper below the surface, even telling InSight to use its robotic arm to help bury the instrument, a task for which the arm was not. destined. But the tool stuck – seriously, so relatable! – and in early 2021, NASA was forced to abandon that part of the mission. “It’s a huge disappointment,” Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator of the InSight mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me at the time.
InSight also suffered from a paradox: the very conditions that allowed it to do its job also ended up draining its energy. (Again, I feel you, InSight.) The mission’s seismometer was so sensitive that vibrations produced by the Martian wind could mask a slight tremor. This made the Martian summer, with its calmer weather, the best time to catch earthquakes. But the windless days also allowed dust to accumulate on InSight’s solar panels and blocked much-needed sunlight.
The mission did not include any dust collection technology. InSight’s human caretakers sometimes instructed the robot to use its robotic arm to dust the solar panels with dirt, which, when blown away by the wind, took some of the smaller, stickier bits of dust with it. . In space exploration, mundane mechanisms can quickly become complicated and very expensive hardware that must be relentlessly tested here on Earth if it has a chance of working in an entirely different world. Additionally, interplanetary missions must travel light. Instead of investing in windshield wipers, mission officials opted to make the solar panels as large as possible so the spacecraft could absorb more rays, even as the dust that would be its downfall began to settle. ‘accumulate.
Despite the ground saga and its battery issues, InSight has continued to listen to the March tremors, detecting its largest earlier this spring, at magnitude 5. (On Earth, such an earthquake would shake dishes and shatter windows.) InSight even detected the vibrations produced when meteoroids fell from the sky and hit the surface. And his readings have given astronomers the insight that Elysium Planitia is one of the most geologically exciting places on Mars: A recent analysis revealed that a plume of hot material is bubbling through Mars’ mantle like ” drops of hot wax rising in lava lamps,” lifting part of the plain into a noticeable peak.
NASA says it will continue to listen for a signal from InSight, but the lander is unlikely to return. The robot will become, like other Mars missions before it, a curious piece of junk thanks to the aliens next door. From its perch, InSight explored Mars like no other mission to the Red Planet had before, and the data will benefit future missions, including those that may one day include robots and people. The spacecraft felt something fascinating and truly alien on our behalf. During a few difficult years, he did his best.