Dust-covered solar panels mean NASA Mars lander’s mission is ending

Due to a decreasing power supply, the mission will cease scientific operations by the end of late summer, said Kathya Zamora Garcia, InSight deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during a news conference Tuesday.

InSight’s solar panels have been increasingly covered in red Martian dust, despite creative efforts by the mission’s team on Earth. This accumulation will only worsen as Mars now enters winter, when more dust is lofted into the atmosphere.

These floating particles reduce the sunlight necessary to charge the solar panels that power InSight, which is currently working on an extended mission that was expected to last through December. The mission achieved its primary goals after its first two years on Mars.

The lander went into safe mode on May 7, when its energy levels dropped, causing it to cease everything but essential functions. The team anticipates this could happen more frequently in the future as dust levels increase.

The stationary lander is only able to collect about one-tenth of the available power supply it had after landing on Mars in November 2018. When InSight first landed, it could produce about 5,000 watt-hours each day on Mars, the equivalent of what it takes to power an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes.

Now, the lander produces 500 watt-hours per day, enough to power an electric oven for just 10 minutes. If 25% of the solar panels were cleaned, InSight would experience a power boost sufficient to keep it going. The spacecraft has witnessed many dust devils, or whirlwinds, but none have been close enough to clear off the solar panels.

“We’ve been hoping for a dust cleaning like we saw happen several times to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at JPL. “That’s still possible, but energy is low enough that our focus is making the most of the science we can still collect.”

The lander’s robotic arm will soon be placed in “retirement pose.”

By the end of the summer, the team will turn off the seismometer, end science operations and monitor what power levels remain on the lander. At the end of the year, the InSight mission will conclude.

The InSight team, however, will still listen for any possible communication from the spacecraft and determine if it could ever operate again.

InSight captured this image of one of its dust-covered solar panels on April 24.

“The InSight mission has really just been an incredible mission for us,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, during the news conference. “And it’s given us a glimpse of Mars that we couldn’t get from any other spacecraft in our NASA Mars fleet. Interpretation of the InSight data have really furthered our understanding of how rocky planets form throughout the universe.”

The lander’s highly sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes from hundreds and thousands of miles away. The data collected by InSight so far has revealed new details about the little-known Martian core and mantle. It has also recorded weather data and analyzed the remains of the magnetic field that once existed on Mars.
InSight detected the largest one yet, a magnitude 5, on May 4.

“Even as we’re starting to get close to the end of our mission, Mars is still giving us some really amazing things to see,” Banerdt said.

This graphic shows the difference in InSight's power supply in 2018 (left) versus what it has now (right) due to dust accumulation and decreasing sunlight.

Marsquakes are like the earthquakes we experience on Earth, just a little bit different when it comes to why they occur on each planet. On Earth, this recent event would be a medium-size quake — but it reaches a new record for seismic activity detected by scientists studying Mars.

When we experience earthquakes, it’s because the tectonic plates on Earth are shifting, moving and grinding against one another. So far, Earth is the only planet known to have these plates.

So how do quakes occur on Mars? Think of the Martian crust as a single giant plate. This crust has faults and fractures within it because the planet continues to shrink as it cools. This shrinkage puts stress on the Martian crust, stretching and cracking it.

When the seismic waves of marsquakes travel through different materials within the Martian interior, it allows scientists to study the planet’s structure. Analyzing the activity helps them to understand the mysterious Martian interior and apply this research to learn how other rocky planets, including our own, are formed.

With InSight, scientists were able to map out the inside of Mars for the very first time in history, Banerdt said.

Seismic signals from marsquakes passing through material has revealed more about the Martian crust, mantle and core.

The InSight science team continues to analyze the quake to better understand its origin, source and what it may reveal about the red planet.

InSight’s steady stream of data heading to scientists on Earth will stop when the solar cells can no longer generate enough power. But researchers will be studying the detections made by InSight for decades to come in order to learn as much as possible about our enigmatic planetary neighbor.