NASA’s Mars InSight mission comes to an end as dust covers solar panels

A NASA spacecraft on Mars is headed for a dusty demise.

The Insight lander is losing power due to all the dust on its solar panels. NASA said Tuesday that it will continue to use the spacecraft’s seismometer to record earthquakes until the power runs out, likely in July. Flight controllers will then monitor InSight through the end of this year, before calling it all off.

“There really hasn’t been too much pessimism on the team. We’re really still focused on operating the spacecraft,” said Bruce Banerdt of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead scientist.

Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes; the largest, magnitude 5, occurred two weeks ago.

It will be NASA’s second Mars lander lost to dust: A global dust storm wiped out Opportunity in 2018. In InSight’s case, it’s been a gradual buildup of dust, especially over the past year.

CLOCK | NASA scientists discuss InSight’s goals on Mars:

rethink solar energy

NASA’s other two operating spacecraft on the Martian surface, the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, are still going strong thanks to nuclear power.

The space agency may rethink solar power in the future for Mars, planetary science director Lori Glaze said, or at least experiment with new panel-cleaning technology or target less stormy seasons.

InSight is currently generating a tenth of the energy from the sun that it generated when it arrived.

Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes; now it has been reduced to 10 minutes maximum.

The InSight team anticipated this large accumulation of dust, but hoped that a gust of wind or a dust storm might clear the solar panels. That hasn’t happened yet, even though several thousand whirlwinds are approaching.

“None of them have nailed it enough to get the dust off the panels,” Banerdt told reporters.

Another scientific instrument, called a mole, was supposed to dig five meters underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German bulldozer never went deeper than half a meter due to the unexpected composition of the red soil, and she was finally pronounced dead early last year.

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