Nasa is officially ending Insight lander’s mission to detect Marsquakes as solar panels covered in dust

Nasa hopes for a ‘dust devil’ – passing whirlwind – to clear dust and reverse trend

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 18 May 2022 06:19
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Nasa shares news on spacecraft’s power situation and accomplishments

Nasa is officially expecting to end its InSightMars lander’s mission to detect Marsquakes in July as the spacecraft’s solar panels are shrouded in Martian dust.

The American space agency said the InSight lander, currently on an extended mission after completing its primary science goals, is producing less power as its solar panels continue to accumulate dust.

“Because of the reduced power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time later this month,” Nasa said in a statement on Tuesday.

InSight’s science operations may be ended “later this summer”, it added.

When InSight landed, its solar panels produced around 5,000 watt-hours of energy each Martian day, or sol – enough to power an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes – but Nasa says they’re currently producing only about 500 watt-hours per sol.

“We’ve been hoping for a dust-cleaning like we saw happen several times to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. That’s still possible, but energy is low enough that our focus is making the most of the science we can still collect,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The spacecraft could technically still collect data for science if 25 per cent of InSight’s panels were swept clean by the wind, but at the current rate at which its power is declining, Nasa says InSight’s non-seismic instruments will “rarely be turned on after the end of May”.

InSight captured this image of one of its dust-covered solar panels on 24 April 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission

Since landing on the Red Planet in November 2018, InSight has shed valuable insights on several geological phenomena on Mars, including the detection of the largest quake ever observed on Mars and any planet other than Earth, as well as capturing the “haunting low rumble” of Martian winds.

In its operation time of over three years, the lander has also faced several hurdles, including a time in April last year when it went into “emergency hibernation” as its solar panels got covered in dust and cold Martian weather threatened to damage its vital electronics on board.

For over a year, Nasa has been coming up with innovative ways to clean the dust off InSight’s solar panels.

It tried pulsing the solar panel deployment motors that were used when InSight opened its solar panels after landing to shake the dust off, but the effort wasn’t successful.

The Nasa team even tried a counterintuitive approach of trickling sand near but not directly on top of the panels.

Scientists thought with this method, it would be possible to strike dust on the panels with sand grains that would “saltate,” or hop off the solar panel surface and skip through the air in the wind.

They used the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to trickle sand next to InSight’s solar panels on 22 May 2021, hoping the larger grains might then carry off the smaller dust particles in the wind.

The trickling of sand this way coincided with an instantaneous bump in the spacecraft’s overall power, the space agency noted in June last year.

While past efforts removed some of this dust and helped the lander work on its extended missions, Nasa scientists say a more powerful dust-cleaning event, such as a “dust devil” – a passing whirlwind – would be needed to reverse the trend.

Currently, the energy InSight makes from its solar panels is being prioritised for its seismometer, which Nasa said would operate at select times, such as at night, when winds are low and marsquakes are easier to detect.

However, the agency added that the seismometer itself would be off by the “end of summer”, concluding the science phase of the mission.

Nasa expects the lander would still have enough power to operate after this, taking the occasional picture and communicating with Earth.

But even under such projections, Nasa says the lander’s power will be low enough that it “will simply stop responding” around December.

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