NASA’s InSight mission is dying a slow death. The lander, which is located in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars, gradually collects more and more dust that blocks its solar panels. As dust accumulates, the amount of energy the panels can generate becomes less and less.
This slow slide was accelerated by a huge recent dust storm that threw even more dust into the air. Not only does this mean more dust on the solar panels, but the amount of dust in the atmosphere blocks much of the sunlight, further reducing the power generated by the solar panels.
The gradually decreasing energy availability and the impending end of the mission come as no surprise to the mission team, which has been preparing for it all year. Previous creative attempts to sustain the mission, such as taking a dust shower on the lander, helped extend its life, but power levels have now dropped to just 275 watt hours per Martian day during the dust storm.
“We were almost at the bottom rung of our ladder as far as power was concerned. Now we’re on the ground floor,” InSight project manager Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in statement. “If we can get through this, we can continue to operate through the winter – but I would be worried about the next storm coming.”
The main mission of the InSight lander is to use its seismometer to detect earthquakes. Like earthquakes here on Earth, Mars also experiences tremors. Although unlike Earth, Mars does not have tectonic plates, so there is an ongoing debate about what exactly causes these earthquakes. But whatever the cause, InSight has been able to record many such events, including a monster earthquake earlier this year that was the strongest earthquake ever detected on another planet. The mission also detected the sound of a meteoroid hitting the planet and captured the sound of Martian winds.
InSight’s seismometer has been operating for some time over the past few months, but power levels are now too low to continue operating even on this reduced schedule for more than a few weeks. So the seismometer will be turned off for two weeks, with the hope that it can be turned back on if conditions improve.