Dusty demise looms for NASA Mars lander

Marcia DunnAP
InSight has detected more than 1300 marsquakes since landing on Mars in 2018.
Camera IconInSight has detected more than 1300 marsquakes since landing on Mars in 2018. Credit: AP

A NASA spacecraft on Mars is headed for a dusty demise.

The InSight lander is losing power because of the dust on its solar panels. NASA says it will keep using the spacecraft's seismometer to register marsquakes until the power peters out, likely in July. Then flight controllers will monitor InSight until the end of this year before calling everything off.

"There really hasn't been too much doom and gloom on the team. We're really still focused on operating the spacecraft," said Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Bruce Banerdt, the principal scientist.

Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1300 marsquakes; the biggest one, a magnitude 5.0, occurred two weeks ago.

It will be NASA's second Mars lander lost to dust: a global dust storm took out Opportunity in 2018. In InSight's case, it's been a gradual gathering of dust, especially in the past year.

NASA's two other functioning spacecraft on the Martian surface - rovers Curiosity and Perseverance - are still going strong thanks to nuclear power.

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

InSight is generating one-tenth of the power from the sun that it did upon arrival. Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes. Now it's down to 10 minutes max.

The InSight team anticipated this much dust build-up but hoped wind might clean off the solar panels.

Another instrument, dubbed the mole, was supposed to burrow five metres underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German digger never got deeper than half a metre because of the unexpected composition of the red dirt, and it finally was declared dead at the beginning of last year.

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