Dust and Winter forces to reduce Insight operations on Mars

Dust and Winter forces to reduce Insight operations on Mars

As dust accumulates on solar panels and winter hits Elysium Planitia, NASA’s Insight lander operations have been curtailed by power shortages.The lander – which arrived on Mars in 2018 with the primary mission of studying the Martian subsurface – recently received a mission extension for another two years, giving it time to detect more earthquakes, dust eddies and other. phenomena on the surface of Mars.

While the mission team plans to continue collecting data well into 2022, growing dust from the spacecraft’s solar panels and the onset of the Martian winter led to the decision to conserve power and temporarily limit the operation of its instruments.

InSight was designed to be durable: the stationary lander is equipped with solar panels, each of which is 2 meters wide.

InSight’s design was based on that of the solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity rovers, with the expectation that the panels would gradually reduce their power output as dust settled on them, but would have ample output to last up to the hour. Two-year main mission (completed in November 2020).

Additionally, the InSight team chose a landing site on Elysium Planitia, a windswept plain on the Red Planet’s equator that receives plenty of sunlight. Passing dust swirls were expected to clean the panels, which has happened many times with Spirit and Opportunity, allowing them to last for years beyond their design life.

But even though InSight detected hundreds of passing dust swirls, none have come close enough to clean those dining-table-size panels since they were deployed to Mars in November 2018. Today, InSight’s solar panels they are producing only 27% of their capacity dust-free.

That energy has to be shared between scientific instruments, a robotic arm, the spacecraft’s radio, and a variety of heaters that keep everything going despite freezing temperatures. With the windiest season of the Martian year just ending, the team does not have a cleanup event in the coming months.

Mars is currently moving toward what’s called aphelion, the point in its orbit when it is farthest from the Sun. That means the already weak sunlight on the Martian surface is getting even weaker, reducing energy when InSight needs it most. your heaters to keep warm.

Mars will begin to approach the Sun again in July 2021, after which the team will begin to resume full science operations.

“The amount of power available over the next few months will really depend on the weather,” InSight project manager Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

“As part of our extended mission planning, we developed an operations strategy to keep InSight safe during the winter so that we can resume science operations as solar intensity increases.”

Over the next several weeks and months, InSight scientists will carefully select which instruments need to be turned off each day to conserve energy from heaters and energy-intensive activities such as radio communication.

InSight’s weather sensors are likely to remain off most of the time (resulting in infrequent updates to the mission’s weather page), and all instruments will need to be off for some time around the aphelion.

Currently, the power levels seem strong enough to carry the lander through the winter. But the generation of solar power on Mars is always a bit uncertain.

The Opportunity rover was forced to shut down after a series of dust storms darkened the Martian sky in 2019, and Spirit did not survive the Martian winter in 2010. If InSight were to run out of power due to a sudden dust storm, it is designed to be able to restart when sunlight returns if your electronics survived extreme cold.


These days InSight will be ordered to extend its robotic arm over the panels so that a camera can take close-up images of the dust layer. The team will then pulse the motors that each panel deployed after landing to try to disturb the dust and see if the wind blows it away. The team considers this a long shot, but worth the effort.