Why the Mars InSight lander is covering itself in dirt


NASA's InSight lander blew sand over the panel to clear dust from one of its solar panels.  Wind-borne sand grains picked up some dust on the panel, enabling the lander to achieve about 30 watt-hours of energy per sol on May 22, 2021, the mission's 884th Martian day.
NASA’s InSight lander blew sand over the panel to clear dust from one of its solar panels. Wind-borne sand grains picked up some dust on the panel, enabling the lander to achieve about 30 watt-hours of energy per sol on May 22, 2021, the mission’s 884th Martian day. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Driving a robot on Mars is not easy. 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 the dust eventually clogs the solar panels and prevents them from working. The same happened with the now-defunct Opportunity rover, which ran out of power when a dust storm struck and prevented it from charging through its solar panels.

So the InSight team has taken a counter-intuitive approach to fixing the problem, which they tried recently: They let the lander throw more dirt on itself.

The team has been pondering how to deal with the power problem for a year and has tried other approaches, such as using motors to loosen the dust – but without success. So they decided to try something wild: they used the lander’s robotic arm to scoop out some sand and move it next to the solar panel. The wind picked up the sand and blew it across the panel, leaving some of the dust behind.

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

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

The issue of lightning continues to build pressure as Mars will soon reach its epoch, or the point at which it is farthest from the Sun. This means less solar power is available, and although the lander has turned off many of its science instruments to reduce electricity use in cold weather, it still needs enough power to keep its heater and computer running. is required.

InSight recently extended its mission by two years, but we’ll have to wait and see if the dust management approach provided enough power to keep the lander operational. “While there is no guarantee that the spacecraft will have all the power it needs, the recent cleanup will add some helpful margins to InSight’s power reserves,” NASA said. wrote.




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