NASA's InSight Mars lander might die by April if it doesn't get a significant energy boost

NASA's InSight Mars lander might die by April if it doesn't get a significant energy boost
·4 min read
insight mars
An illustration of NASA's Mars InSight lander. NASA-JPL Caltech

NASA's InSight lander may not survive another year on Mars.

The $800 million robotic science station landed in a Martian plain called Elysium Planitia in November 2018. Since then, it has detected more than 500 Mars quakes, felt more than 10,000 dust devils pass by, and started to measure the planet's core. But over the last six months, InSight has been facing an energy crisis, since dust is building up on its solar panels.

On other Martian plains where NASA has landed robots, gusts of wind typically sweep the dust away. But Elysium Planitia is unusually wind-free. So now the InSight team is preparing to shut off the lander's science instruments to save power as Mars moves further from the sun in the next two months.

By pausing its scientific operations, the lander should be able to save enough power to keep its systems warm through the frigid Martian nights, when temperatures can drop to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

But according to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust, an InSight mission leader told NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group on Monday that even if InSight survives the upcoming cold months, energy levels will start to drop again by April. That's because more dust is likely to swirl through the Martian atmosphere and settle on the solar panels.

"Unless we get a fairly significant increase in our solar array output, we're likely to end our mission sometime around that time next year," Bruce Banerdt, the mission's principal investigator, said in the group's meeting, according to Foust.

insight mars lander red dust solar panels
The InSight lander's camera captured one of its solar-panel arrays covered in dust on February 14, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight's solar panels are already about 80% obscured, and their daily energy production has dropped from nearly 5,000 watt-hours to less than 700 watt-hours, Banerdt said, according to Foust.

As Mars moves back towards the sun in August, the InSight team expects that the robot will be able to absorb more sunlight, produce more energy, and power its science instruments back up - for a time.

InSight bought itself some time by playing with dirt

insight robotic arm scooping and trickling sand near solar panels gif
InSight tries trickling sand to remove dust from its solar panels, May 22, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight completed its first mission in 2020, two years after landing. But the robot was still in good health, so NASA extended funding for another two years. However, the dusty air Banerdt expects to come in April may cut the lander's life short.

To shed the dust on InSight's solar panels, the team first tried instructing the lander to shake the panels, but it didn't work. So the engineers got creative: They began instructing the robot to scoop up dirt and slowly trickle it next to the solar panels. The thinking was that some of the large grains of sand would get caught in the wind, bounce off the solar panels, and take some stubborn dust with them.

It worked - a little. The first attempt added about 30 watt-hours to daily energy production.

"This has bought us a little bit of headroom that we didn't have before," Banerdt told the NASA group, according to Foust.

For now, the InSight team is trying to collect as much data as possible before turning off the lander's science instruments. The lander's star device, the seismometer, will be the last instrument to shut down and the first to power back up. This is prime time for detecting Mars quakes, since dying winter winds mean less interference.

"We're hoping to keep the seismometer going as long as we can, then start it up again - you know, after we pass this low-power time - turn it on as quickly as we can," Banerdt previously told Insider. "But we will probably be missing some things in between."

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