For four years, InSight was the only active seismic monitoring station beyond Earth. The lander monitored “marsquakes,” providing details on Mars’ interior, formation, and activity such as meteor impacts. The mission ended on Dec. 21, 2022 after mission controllers determined the solar-powered spacecraft ran out of energy.
May 5, 2018: Launch
Nov. 26, 2018: Mars landing
January 2021: InSight’s ‘Mole’ ended its journey on Mars
Dec. 15, 2022: Contact Lost; end of mission
NASA's InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander operating on the surface of the Red Planet since Nov. 26, 2018.
Its mission is to give Mars its first thorough checkup since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago. InSight is the first robotic explorer to make a detailed study of the "inner space" of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.
The lander has cutting-edge instruments, to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars to measure the planet's "vital signs."
Studying Mars' interior is helping scientists answer key questions about the early formation of rocky planets in our inner solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – as well as rocky exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars). Specifically, the InSight mission seeks to uncover how a rocky body forms and evolves to become a planet by investigating the interior structure and composition of Mars.
In January 2021, InSight’s ‘Mole’ ended its journey on Mars. Starting on Feb. 28, 2019, the probe attempted to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature and provide details about the interior heat engine that drives Mars’ evolution and geology. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction needed to hammer itself to a sufficient depth.
After getting the top of the mole about 2 or 3 centimeters under the surface, the team tried one last time to use a scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to scrape soil onto the probe and tamp it down to provide added friction. After the probe conducted 500 additional hammer strokes on Jan. 9, 2021, with no progress, the team called an end to their efforts.
Part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole is a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver connected to the lander by a tether with embedded temperature sensors. These sensors are designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet (3 meters) deep.
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of (DLR). “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”
While NASA’s Phoenix lander scraped the top layer of the Martian surface, no mission before InSight has tried to burrow into the soil. Doing so is important for a variety of reasons: Future astronauts may need to dig through the soil to access water ice, while scientists want to study the subsurface’s potential to support microbial life.
Provided by the French space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), the seismometer detected its first marsquake on April 6, 2019, and had recorded more than 730 distinct marsquakes as of mid-2021. About 35 of those – all between magnitudes 3.0 and 4.0 – provided the data for three papers published in July 2021 that provide new details on the depth and composition of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, including confirmation that the planet’s center is molten.
“When we first started putting together the concept of the mission more than a decade ago, the information in these papers is what we hoped to get at the end,” said InSight’s principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission. “This represents the culmination of all the work and worry over the past decade.”
The InSight mission's Marsquake Service, which monitors the data from SEIS, is led by Swiss research university ETH Zurich.
InSight also is providing daily weather reports from Mars. This public tool includes stats on temperature, wind, and air pressure recorded at InSight's landing site. The tool was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, with partners at Cornell University and Spain's Centro de Astrobiología. JPL leads the InSight mission.
Through a package of sensors called the Auxiliary Payload Subsystem (APSS), InSight is providing around-the-clock weather information. The lander records this data during each second of every sol (a Martian day) and sends it to Earth on a daily basis.
InSight sensors captured a haunting low rumble caused by vibrations from the Martian wind, estimated to be blowing at 10 to 15 mph (5 to 7 meters a second) on Dec. 1, 2018. The winds were consistent with the direction of dust devil streaks in the landing area, which were observed from orbit.
The rocket that launched InSight also launched a separate NASA technology experiment: two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These briefcase-sized CubeSats flew on their own path to Mars behind InSight.
MarCO was the first interplanetary mission to use CubeSats. The MarCOs – nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film – served as communications relays during InSight's landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real-time, along with InSight's first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.
All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by JPL, which built the CubeSats.
WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29, 2018; EVE, on Jan. 4, 2019. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.
Even if they're never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.
"This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us," said Andy Klesh, the mission's chief engineer at JPL. "We've put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther."
InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program for highly focused science missions that ask critical questions in solar system science.
InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago.
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