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NASA’s InSight Mars lander will soon succumb to dust

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NASA’s InSight lander is set to end operations on Mars after four years in service.

At a special meeting of key InSight mission personnel on Tuesday, May 17, it was confirmed that increasing amounts of dust on the lander’s two 7-foot-wide solar panels meant it would likely cease. science operations by the end of this summer, before losing power completely in December.

Equipped with a range of scientific instruments, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes – including a recent one measured as the largest earthquake ever detected on another planet – and also located earthquake-prone regions of the red planet. Overall, the mission was a great success, with the lander achieving its primary objectives in its first two years of deployment.

“InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “We can apply what we’ve learned about the internal structure of Mars to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”

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Dust problem

InSight gradually lost power due to an accumulation of dust on its solar panels which gradually blocked sunlight. When it arrived on Mars in 2018, the panels produced around 5,000 watt-hours per Martian day (slightly longer than an Earth day), but today they produce around 500 watt-hours per Martian day. Offering some context, NASA says these kinds of energy levels would power an electric furnace for 100 minutes and 10 minutes, respectively.

The worsening situation means the team is now preparing to place the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position – known as the “retirement pose” – later this month.

It should be noted that the arm played a key role in extending the lander’s mission as the team deployed it to dust off the panels earlier in the mission. The idea, which originated when the team first realized that dust was causing InSight to lose power, involved scooping up Martian dirt and dumping it on the panels. The windy conditions then blew the ground away, taking some of the dust with it. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked. For a while, anyway.

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The only way to save InSight now is for stronger winds – in the form of a Martian whirlwind – to blow the dust off the solar panels.

“We were hoping for a dusting off [event] as we have seen repeatedly for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said mission member Bruce Banerdt. “It’s still possible, but the energy is low enough that our goal is to make the most of the science we can still collect.”

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NASA said if a quarter of InSight’s panels were cleared of dust, the lander would gain about 1,000 watt-hours per Martian day, enough to enable new science.

For now, the lander’s power is prioritized for its seismometer, which operates at night when winds are low, giving it the best chance of detecting marsquakes.

As things stand, the team expects the seismometer to stop functioning within the next few months, leaving InSight with enough power to take the occasional photo and communicate with Earth before finally winding down in December. .

The loss of InSight will leave NASA with three science missions to the surface of Mars: the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, and the Ingenuity rotorcraft.

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