NASA’s Mars Lander Cleaned Sand Off Its Solar Panels Using More Sand

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NASA’s InSight lander has been on the Red Planet since 2018 and, unlike the nuclear-powered Perseverance rover, relies on solar panels. That means dust can build up on the solar panels, which becomes a problem if the planet plunges into another cold winter. Fortunately, JPL engineers came up with an ingenious way to remove the sand from the solar panels. It just took more sand.

InSight received its mission upgrade in early 2021, just before the team decided to abandon the digging HP3 thermal probe, which stubbornly refused to dig. However, as the first seismometer on another planet, the SEIS instrument has exceeded expectations. The team has been working to finalize InSight’s scientific operations for the season. The robot was designed to be quiet during the long Martian winter to save electricity for its heating and communication equipment. But maybe there is a little leeway?

As expected, the accumulation of dust on the lander’s solar panels reduced power consumption. This is more important now that sunlight is harder to come by on Mars. The team fiddled with various methods to remove dust from the solar panels – for example, they tried to pulse the motors to trigger the solar panels, which were unable to remove the dust.

From May 22nd, the team started trying something different. They instructed InSight to use its robotic arm shovel to collect more Martian soil and throw it onto the plates. They waited on Mars until noon, the windiest time of the day. Since the wind passed at a healthy 6 meters per second, most of the sand was caught by the wind. The team hoped some of it would “salt”, which means the grains bounced or tumbled over the solar panel. In theory, this would result in smaller grains being swept away on the plate.

In fact, the lander reported an increase in power after the sand deposition operation was completed. InSight now extracts another 30 watt hours of energy per sol. The lander has a maximum capacity of 4.6 kilowatt hours, but the profit is still enough to extend the science operation for a few extra weeks. InSight will continue to close over the course of the summer and will come back online in August when Mars approaches the Sun. This won’t be the last time the mission has to go offline, but this salt sand bath could become a regular process to expand scientific operations a little further.

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