Mars has a tough atmosphere for several reasons: it’s cold, the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the planet experiences epic dust storms that can cover everything within a sphere in a coating of particles. One such dust storm requires that the NASA InSight lander be put in safe mode to maintain its battery power.
Dust storms sometimes engulf the entire planet, but this particular storm is of the region where the lander is located. The biggest risk of a dust storm for the lander is covering its solar panels and thereby reducing the amount of energy the lander can collect. Not only does the panel collect dust, but it also blocks sunlight from the atmosphere. Without enough sunlight reaching the solar panels to recharge its batteries, the lander mission is in danger – like the dust storm that led to the death of the Opportunity rover in 2018.
Fortunately, the InSight team had received an early warning that a dust storm was approaching to be detected by an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting craft that maps the surface of Mars. Images from the Mars Color Imager show the dust storm moving in, and they now suggest the regional storm is on its way.
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 operations. This helps in saving electricity, which was already a matter of concern for the mission.
“Even before this recent dust storm, InSight’s solar panels were collecting dust, reducing the lander’s power supply,” NASA wrote in a statement. Update, “Using the scoop on the lander’s robotic arm, the team at InSight came up with an innovative way to reduce dust on a panel, and achieved several boosts of energy during 2021, but these movements accelerate as available energy decreases.” It gets tougher.”
The team hopes that its efforts will be able to see the lander until the dust storm has passed and they can resume science operations. “InSight engineers expect to be able to order the lander to exit safe mode next week,” NASA wrote. “This will allow for greater flexibility in the operation of the lander, as communications, which require relatively large amounts of energy, are limited in safe mode to conserve battery charge.”