NASA’s Mars InSight mission nears completion as dust coats solar panels

A NASA spacecraft on Mars is heading for a dusty death.

The Insight lander is losing power due to all the dust on its solar panels. NASA said Tuesday it would continue to use the spacecraft’s seismometer to record earthquakes until the power goes out, likely in July. Then flight controllers will monitor InSight until the end of this year, before calling it all off.

“There really hasn’t been too much pessimism in the team. We’re really still focused on operating the spacecraft,” said Bruce Banerdt of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead scientist.

Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 Marsquakes; the largest, of magnitude 5, occurred two weeks ago.

It will be NASA’s second Mars lander lost in the dust: A global dust storm destroyed Opportunity in 2018. In InSight’s case, it’s a gradual dust pick-up, especially over the course of the last year.

WATCH | NASA scientists discuss InSight’s Mars goals:

Rethinking solar energy

NASA’s other two functional spacecraft on the surface of Mars – the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers – still work well using nuclear power.

The space agency could rethink solar power in the future for Mars, planetary science director Lori Glaze said, or at least experiment with new panel-cleaning technology or aim for less stormy seasons.

InSight currently generates one-tenth the power of the sun as it did when it arrived.

Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes; now it’s up to 10 minutes maximum.

The InSight team anticipated this dust buildup, but hoped that a gust of wind or a heck of dust might clear the solar panels. This has not happened yet, despite several thousand whirlwinds approaching.

“None of them have hit us enough to blow the dust off the panels yet,” Banerdt told reporters.

Another scientific instrument, dubbed the Mole, was supposed to dig five meters underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German digger never made it to the half-meter depth because of the unexpected composition of the red earth, and he was eventually pronounced dead early last year.