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Dust storm nearly finishes off Mars lander InSight

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.

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InSight Mars lander selfie image.
The InSight Mars lander’s final selfie. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The gradually dropping power availability and the upcoming end of the mission aren’t a surprise to the mission team, who have been preparing for this throughout this year. Previous creative attempts to keep the mission going such as by having the lander take a dust shower have helped prolong its life, but power levels have now dropped to just 275 watt-hours per Martian day during the dust storm.

“We were at about the bottom rung of our ladder when it comes to power. Now we’re on the ground floor,” said InSight’s project manager, Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “If we can ride this out, we can keep operating into winter – but I’d worry about the next storm that comes along.”

The InSight lander’s main mission is to use its seismometer to detect marsquakes. Like earthquakes here on Earth, Mars also experiences tremors. Though unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates, so there’s an ongoing debate about what exactly causes these quakes. But whatever their cause, InSight has been able to record many such events, including a monster quake earlier this year which was the strongest quake ever detected on another planet. The mission also detected the sound of a meteoroid striking the planet and captured the sound of the winds on Mars.

InSight’s seismometer instrument has been operating some of the time over the last few months, but power levels are now too low to keep operating even on this reduced schedule for more than a few weeks. So the seismometer will be turned off for two weeks, with the hope it may be able to be turned back on if conditions improve.

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