NASA Mars InSight lander limits operations as a consequence of dusty photo voltaic panels

Could we get some wind here, please? NASA’s InSight lander has a layer of dust on its solar panels in this image from February 14, 2021.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series on exploring the red planet.

It is a massive month for spaceships entering Mars orbitbut let’s not forget the machines that are already on the ground. NASA’s solar-powered InSight lander, which landed in 2018, has a dust problem to solve.

NASA temporarily limits the operation of InSight’s scientific instruments. “As dust builds up on the solar panels and winter comes to Elysium Planitia, the team is following a plan to reduce scientific operations to keep the lander safe,” the agency said in a statement Friday.

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The InSight team tweeted a few pictures that opened their eyes and showed the lander’s solar panels near the first landing and what they look like now. The array is covered with a healthy layer of reddish dust.

The lander’s wide solar panels are designed to keep working even in the dusty conditions of Mars, with the expectation that dust devils can clean them up. “Although InSight has spotted hundreds of passing dust devils, none has been close enough to remove these table-sized tablets since they unfolded on Mars in November 2018,” NASA said.

The solar systems now produce 27% of their full capacity when they are clean. Some of this energy has to go into the InSight heaters to protect the lander during the Martian winter. The available power is shared between the heating devices and various scientific instruments.

The InSight team anticipates that scientific operations can be stepped up again in mid-2021 when Mars approaches the Sun. “Currently the power levels seem strong enough to guide the lander through the winter,” NASA said. “But the generation of solar energy on Mars is always somewhat uncertain.”

InSight recently received a mission upgrade by December 2022 so that seismic and weather data can continue to be recorded. Now it just has to get through the winter.

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