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Mars lander InSight is awake from safe mode after dust storm

NASA’s InSight lander on Mars has returned to normal operations after a break of around two weeks due to a regional dust storm. The lander is currently active, but its science instruments will remain off until the full effects of the dust storm can be ascertained.

Mars is the dustiest place in the solar system, with a combination of low gravity due to its small size and thin atmosphere with many air currents due to changes in temperature. That means that dust can easily be whipped up off the surface and cause regional or even global dust storms which researchers are only beginning to understand. But more than a meteorological oddity, this has a direct effect on machines on the surface of the planet.

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

Dust storms cause problems for explorers like InSight which rely on solar panels for their power in two ways. Firstly, the dust in the atmosphere filters the already relatively weak sunlight that Mars experiences, meaning there is less light reaching the surface. Secondly, the dust settles on solar panels and blocks off even more of the light. This is why dust storms have spelled the end for previous Mars explorers, such as the long-lived Opportunity rover which went dark after a regional dust storm in 2018, and also why the team for the Mars helicopter Ingenuity chose to delay its most recent flight.

To keep explorers like InSight going as long as possible, engineers put them into safe mode when they know a dust storm is approaching. This minimal mode turns off all but the essential components of the lander in order to converse power. Earlier this month, the InSight team got a warning from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting Mars observation craft, that a dust storm was on its way and they put the lander into safe mode on January 7.

In an update on January 19, the InSight team confirmed that InSight had survived its almost two-week break and was powering on again now that the storm has passed. “NASA’s InSight has exited safe mode and resumed normal operations, although its science instruments remain off. Skies appear to be clearing of dust above the spacecraft,” NASA wrote. “Over the next two weeks, the mission team will assess the effects of dust accumulation on the lander’s power.”

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