Amid reports of declining power levels, NASA’s landing InSight appears set to maintain its scientific tools for most of the summer.
InSight has been on Mars since 2018 and has far exceeded its original mission duration. However, despite the longevity of the probe, its life is dictated by the two masters of finance and power. The first will last until the end of 2022 as part of a two-year extension of the mission. The latter, however, proves to be a challenge, as dust accumulates on the solar panels of the lander.
Due to the hard work of my team, solar energy has improved. At the beginning of the year, we thought we would stop collecting science for six months; I will now be working for most of the summer. All of this is “bonus” science, as I have fulfilled my main mission goals. pic.twitter.com/ovC52IjIVo
– NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) June 25, 2021
Although a drop in power was expected, the team was hoping for some of the “cleansing events” experienced by Spirit and Opportunity rovers. However, while InSight’s weather sensors detected passing whirlwinds, no one was able to lift dust from the panels. Attempts to use solar panel deployment engines to shake off some of the dust also failed.
Reports last week paints a somewhat bleak picture of the lander with tools that are likely to be turned off to extract available power before Mars is at the point furthest from the Sun.
Earlier this month, engineers turned to a slightly non-intuitive method of cleaning the panels, where sand flowed from a spoon on the landing gear robot arm near the panels in the hope that the larger grains could carry some of the smaller dust particles. The procedure appears to have worked to the extent that power reserves exist to keep InSight tools running. At least for now.
A NASA spokesman said The register“We’ve been expecting this for almost a year … The falling force was a natural consequence of Mars moving away from the Sun, no matter how much dust there was on our panels.”
This was not a completely smooth mission for the lander. Most notably, a key part of the payload, the heat flow “mall” and the physical properties package (HP3), was effectively written off earlier this year after failing to bury somewhere near the expected depth of five meters due to a surprising type of soil. However, the seismometer (SEIS), the radio experiment (RISE) and the meteorological instruments remain operational.
The mission has been extended until December 2022, although without some “cleansing events” the team has a challenging time ahead. While the latest update proudly proclaims that things should continue to run through most of the summer, Mars’ solar connection, due to appear in October, will cut off communications while Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun. Power levels will also fall once again in 2022.
Why not a brush or fan to clean the dust? “Equipping the spacecraft with brushes or dust-cleaning fans would add weight and damage points,” NASA explained.
“Some members of the public suggest using the rotating blades of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter to clear the InSight panels,” the agency added, “but that’s not an option either: The operation would be too risky and the helicopter is approximately 2,145 miles, or 3452 kilometers. “
And so. ®