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NASA’s InSight Mars lander will soon succumb to dust

NASA’s InSight lander is set to end operations on Mars after four years of 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-feet-wide solar panels meant that it would likely cease science operations by the end of this summer, before completely losing power in December.

Packed with an array of science instruments, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes — including a recent one measured as the largest quake ever detected on another planet — and also located quake-prone regions of the red planet. Overall, the mission has been a great success, with the lander achieving its primary goals within 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 Mars’ inner structure to Earth, the moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”

Dust problem

InSight has been gradually losing power due to an accumulation of dust on its solar panels that has gradually blocked out sunlight. When it arrived on Mars in 2018, the panels produced around 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day (a touch longer than an Earth day), but today they’re producing around 500 watt-hours per Martian day. Offering some context, NASA says these kinds of energy levels would power an electric oven 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’s worth noting that the arm played a key role in prolonging the lander’s mission as the team deployed it to clear dust off the panels earlier in the mission. The idea, which came about when the team first realized that dust was causing InSight to lose power, involved scooping up Martian soil and dumping it on the panels. Windy conditions then blew away the soil, taking some of the dust with it. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked. For a while, anyway.

The only way that InSight can be saved now is for stronger winds — in the form of a Martian whirlwind — to clear the dust off the solar panels.

“We’ve been hoping for a dust-cleaning [event] like we saw happen several times to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said mission member Bruce Banerdt. “That’s still possible, but energy is low enough that our focus is making the most of the science we can still collect.”

NASA said that 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 further science work.

For now, the lander’s energy is being prioritized for its seismometer, which is working at night when winds are low, giving it the best chance to detect marsquakes.

As things stand, the team expects the seismometer to stop working in the next few months, leaving InSight with enough power only to snap the occasional photo and communicate with Earth before finally going quiet in December.

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

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