Skip to main content

Why the Mars InSight lander is covering itself in dirt

To clean a bit of dust from one of its solar panels, NASA’s InSight lander trickled sand above the panel. The wind-borne sand grains then picked up some dust on the panel, enabling the lander to gain about 30 watt-hours of energy per sol on May 22, 2021, the 884th Martian day of the mission.
To clean a bit of dust from one of its solar panels, NASA’s InSight lander trickled sand above the panel. The wind-borne sand grains then picked up some dust on the panel, enabling the lander to gain about 30 watt-hours of energy per sol on May 22, 2021, the 884th Martian day of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s not easy powering a robot on Mars. NASA rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance use a nuclear power system, but other explorers like the InSight lander rely on solar power. The good news is that the sun provides a constant source of energy. The bad news is that Mars is a very dusty place, and dust eventually covers solar panels and stops them from working. That’s what happened to the now-defunct Opportunity rover, which ran out of power when a dust storm rolled in and prevented it from charging via its solar panels.

So the InSight team has come up with a counterintuitive approach to fixing this problem, which they recently tried out: They got the lander to dump more dirt onto itself.

The team has been considering how to approach the power issue for a year and has tried other approaches like using motors to shake the dust loose — but without success. So they decided to try something wild: They used lander’s robotic arm to scoop up some sand and trickle it next to a solar panel. The wind picked up the sand and blew it across the panel, which carried some of the dust away as it went.

This surprising approach resulted in an improvement of 30 watt-hours of energy per martian day.

“We weren’t sure this would work, but we’re delighted that it did,” Matt Golombek, a member of the InSight science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The power issue is becoming pressing because Mars will soon approach its aphelion, or the point at which it is furthest from the sun. That means there is less solar energy available, and although the lander has turned off many of its science instruments to minimize power usage during the cold season, it still needs enough power to keep its heaters and computer running.

InSight recently had its mission extended by two years, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the dust management approach yielded enough power for the lander to keep running. “While it’s no guarantee that the spacecraft has all the power it needs, the recent cleaning will add some helpful margin to InSight’s power reserves,” NASA wrote.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA’s damaged Ingenuity helicopter spotted in Mars rover photo
A Mars landscape with NASA's Ingenuity helicopter in the background.

A Mars landscape with NASA's Ingenuity helicopter seen on the dune in the distance. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, has captured an image (above) showing the final resting place of the damaged Mars helicopter, Ingenuity.

Read more
NASA reveals how Mars helicopter just kept getting better and better
nasa video shows how it pushed mars helicopter to the limit ingenuity

It’s been a couple of weeks since NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, took its final flight on the red planet.

It was grounded for good after suffering damage to one of its propellers during its 72nd and final flight. But despite the disappointment, it was widely recognized that Ingenuity achieved much since arriving on Mars in February 2021.

Read more
NASA’s Mars copter flew high, fast, far, and long. Here are the key stats
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

An artist's impression of the Ingenuity helicopter in flight over Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech / NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, is grounded for good. But it achieved a lot during its almost three-year adventure on the red planet.

Read more