Skip to main content

NASA’s InSight put into safe mode during Martian dust storm

Mars is a tough environment for many reasons: It’s cold, the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the planet experiences epic dust storms which can cover everything within a region in a coating of particles. One such dust storm has required that the NASA InSight lander be placed into safe mode in order to preserve its battery power.

Dust storms can sometimes encompass the entire planet, but this particular storm is regional to where the lander is located. The biggest threat that the dust storm poses to the lander is by covering up its solar panels and thereby reducing the amount of energy the lander can collect. Not only does dust accumulate on the panels, but it also blocks sunlight coming through the atmosphere. Without enough sunlight reaching the solar panels to recharge its batteries, the lander mission is at risk — like the dust storms which lead to the demise of the Opportunity rover in 2018.

This selfie of NASA’s InSight lander is a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11 .
This selfie of NASA’s InSight lander is a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11 – the 106th and 133rd Martian days, or sols, of the mission – by the spacecraft Instrument Deployment Camera located on its robotic arm. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fortunately, the InSight team got an early warning that the dust storm was coming thanks to its detection by an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting craft that creates maps of the Martian surface. The images from the Mars Color Imager showed the dust storm moving in, and they now suggest that the regional storm is on its way out.

To keep the lander safe, it was put into safe mode on Friday, January 7, meaning it stopped collecting science data and used only minimal functions. This helps to conserve power, which was already a concern for the mission.

“Even before this recent dust storm, dust had been accumulating on InSight’s solar panels, reducing the lander’s power supply,” NASA wrote in an update. “Using a scoop on the lander’s robotic arm, InSight’s team came up with an innovative way to reduce the dust on one panel, and gained several boosts of energy during 2021, but these activities become increasingly difficult as available energy decreases.”

The team is hopeful that its efforts will see the lander through until the dust storm passes and they can resume science operations. “InSight’s engineers are hopeful they will be able to command the lander to exit safe mode next week,” NASA wrote. “This will allow more flexibility in operating the lander, as communication, which requires a relatively large amount of energy, is limited in safe mode to conserve battery charge.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Enormous meteor strike blows 500 foot-wide crater into Martian surface
Illustration of an impact causing surface waves to spread across Mars.

One of the biggest meteor strikes ever witnessed in the solar system has been recorded by two different Mars missions. The impact caused seismic waves to shake the planet and is helping scientists to understand more about the Martian interior.

The strike occurred on December 24, 2021, and scientists had already observed its results in the form of a magnitude 4 marsquake which was detected by the NASA InSight lander. But when reviewing images of the surface collected from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers realized they could see an enormous crater that appeared at the same time, showing that the quakes were caused by a large impact.

Read more
NASA’s four-person Crew-4 mission splashes down safely off Florida coast
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom spacecraft is seen as it lands with NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti aboard in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, Friday, Oct. 14, 2022.

The four astronauts of NASA's Crew-4 mission have returned from the International Space Station and splashed down safely off the coast of Florida. The crew of NASA astronauts Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren, and Jessica Watkins, plus European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, traveled on a SpaceX Dragon craft that splashed down at 4:55 p.m. ET on Friday, October 14.

The crew launched for the space station in April this year, working in orbit for almost six months before handing over duties to the recently launched Crew-5. Following splashdown, the four were taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Read more
Dust storm nearly finishes off Mars lander InSight
The InSight Mars lander's final selfie.

NASA's InSight mission is dying a slow death. The lander, which is located in the Elysium Planitia area of Mars, has been gradually collecting more and more dust which has been blocking its solar panels. As the dust builds up, the amount of power the panels can generate gets lower and lower.

This slow slide has been hastened by an enormous recent dust storm which has thrown even more dust up into the air. Not only does this mean more dust on the solar panels, but the amount of dust in the atmosphere also blocks out much of the sunlight, reducing the generating power of the solar panels even further.

Read more