End of mission: NASA loses communication with the InSight lander

The probe was the first ever to record marsquakes and reveal the planet’s active volcanic regions

The InSight’s seismometer photographed by the ship itself on December 11, in one of its last images.
The InSight’s seismometer photographed by the ship itself on December 11, in one of its last images.NASA

InSight, the first space lander ever to collect data on seismic activity on another planet and reveal its interior structure, is now officially considered retired after two failed communication attempts. The last time that NASA managed to establish a connection with this van-sized spacecraft located near the equator of Mars was on December 15. Those responsible for the mission were aware that they were going to lose contact with it, because its solar panels were for months getting covered with a fine layer of Martian dust that depleted its batteries.

Throughout this year, mission engineers made desperate attempts to save the spacecraft. They shook the panels and even used the robotic arm to throw sand on them, hoping that would clean them, but to no avail. Now, the lander is part of the Martian landscape and no more marsquakes will be captured, laments Simon Stähler, a geophysicist at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School and member of the mission’s scientific team.

The last hope is that a small tornado blows away the dust, as happened with the Spirit and Opportunity probes, but the chances are slim. The InSight cannot move and this would only work if it happens soon, as the spacecraft’s electronic equipment and batteries will soon freeze beyond repair, explains Stähler.

InSight carried the first seismometer ever installed on another planet, and with it made a historic discovery: that Mars is not a geologically dead planet. Its insides move, as confirmed by the 1,319 tidal waves that it captured since it landed on the red planet in May 2018.

In October of that year, when the spacecraft’s fate was already sealed due to the lack of energy, the mission’s scientific team revealed that the InSight had captured the marsquakes caused by two meteorite impacts in 2021. The seismic alert activated by InSight allowed an orbiting spacecraft to locate the crater of one of the impacts, which was 150 meters in diameter and revealed at least a ton of ice.

This is the first time that humanity has captured seismic activity on another planet and created a seismic warning system

The name “InSight” is a compression of the mission’s full name: Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – from the interior of the planet to its surface. The project cost $828.8 million and it revealed the internal structure of the red planet. Accumulated data shows that the outermost layer, the crust, is about 30 kilometers thick. Seismic signals from approximately 500 marsquakes also made it possible to confirm that Mars harbors a liquid core with a diameter of around 1,800 kilometers, half of that of Earth.

This is the first time that humanity has captured seismic activity on another planet and created a seismic warning system. The only precedent – quite a rudimentary one – was carried out by the astronauts of the Apollo program in the 1970s, when they detonated explosives on the Moon to cause seismic waves and study the interior of the satellite, in this case totally dead.

The InSight mission had an important contribution from France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Poland and Spain, which developed the temperature and wind sensors. Philippe Lognonné, from the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, is the principal investigator of the seismometer. “We broke new ground, and our science team can be proud of all that we’ve learned along the way,” he emphasized in a NASA press release.

InSight’s biggest scientific surprise came this month, just 10 days before contact with the spacecraft was lost. According to a team of researchers from the University of Arizona that analyzed data from several orbital probes as well as the seismic movements, Mars is home to an active volcanic region that is about the size of Western Europe and could erupt at any time. It’s quite a paradigm shift for a planet that, until this ship arrived, was thought to be completely dead on the inside.

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