Mars is a tough environment for many reasons: It’s cold, the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the planet experiences epic dust storms which can cover everything within a region in a coating of particles. One such dust storm has required that the NASA InSight lander be placed into safe mode in order to preserve its battery power.
Dust storms can sometimes encompass the entire planet, but this particular storm is regional to where the lander is located. The biggest threat that the dust storm poses to the lander is by covering up its solar panels and thereby reducing the amount of energy the lander can collect. Not only does dust accumulate on the panels, but it also blocks sunlight coming through the atmosphere. Without enough sunlight reaching the solar panels to recharge its batteries, the lander mission is at risk — like the dust storms which lead to the demise of the Opportunity rover in 2018.
This selfie of NASA’s InSight lander is a mosaic made up of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11 – the 106th and 133rd Martian days, or sols, of the mission – by the spacecraft Instrument Deployment Camera located on its robotic arm. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Fortunately, the InSight team got an early warning that the dust storm was coming thanks to its detection by an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting craft that creates maps of the Martian surface. The images from the Mars Color Imager showed the dust storm moving in, and they now suggest that the regional storm is on its way out.
To keep the lander safe, it was put into safe mode on Friday, January 7, meaning it stopped collecting science data and used only minimal functions. This helps to conserve power, which was already a concern for the mission.
“Even before this recent dust storm, dust had been accumulating on InSight’s solar panels, reducing the lander’s power supply,” NASA wrote in an update. “Using a scoop on the lander’s robotic arm, InSight’s team came up with an innovative way to reduce the dust on one panel, and gained several boosts of energy during 2021, but these activities become increasingly difficult as available energy decreases.”
The team is hopeful that its efforts will see the lander through until the dust storm passes and they can resume science operations. “InSight’s engineers are hopeful they will be able to command the lander to exit safe mode next week,” NASA wrote. “This will allow more flexibility in operating the lander, as communication, which requires a relatively large amount of energy, is limited in safe mode to conserve battery charge.”