NASA’s InSight mission, which is expected to end in the near future, saw a recent drop in power generated by its solar panels as a continent-size dust storm swirls over Mars’ southern hemisphere. First observed on Sept. 21, 2022, by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the storm is roughly 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from InSight and initially had little impact on the lander.
The mission carefully monitors the lander’s power level, which has been steadily declining as dust accumulates on its solar arrays. By Monday, Oct. 3, the storm had grown large enough and was lofting so much dust that the thickness of the dusty haze in the Martian atmosphere had increased by nearly 40% around InSight. With less sunlight reaching the lander’s panels, its energy fell from 425 watt-hours per Martian day, or sol, to just 275 watt-hours per sol.
InSight’s seismometer has been operating for about 24 hours every other Martian day. But the drop in solar power does not leave enough energy to completely charge the batteries every sol. At the current rate of discharge, the lander would be able to operate only for several weeks. So to conserve energy, the mission will turn off InSight’s seismometer for the next two weeks.
“We were at about the bottom rung of our ladder when it comes to power. Now we’re on the ground floor,” said InSight’s project manager, Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If we can ride this out, we can keep operating into winter—but I’d worry about the next storm that comes along.”
The team had estimated that InSight’s mission would end sometime between late October of this year and January 2023, based on predictions of how much the dust on its solar panels will reduce its power generation. The lander has long-since surpassed its primary mission and is now close to the end of its extended mission, conducting “bonus science” by measuring marsquakes, which reveal details about the deep interior of the Red Planet.
Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory.