NASA’s InSight went into emergency mode during the Martian sandstorm | Digital trends


Mars is a harsh environment for many reasons: it is cold, the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the planet is suffering from powerful sandstorms that can cover everything in the region with a layer of particles. One such sandstorm required the NASA InSight lander to be put into emergency mode to conserve battery power.

Dust storms can sometimes cover the entire planet, but this particular storm has a regional extent to where the lander is located. The greatest danger that a sandstorm poses to a lander is obstruction of its solar panels, thereby reducing the amount of energy the lander can collect. Not only does dust accumulate on the panels, it also blocks sunlight entering through the atmosphere. Without enough sunlight reaching the solar panels to recharge the batteries, the lander’s mission is at stake – as is the sandstorms that led to the collapse of the Opportunity rover in 2018.

This NASA InSight lander selfie is a mosaic of 14 photos taken on March 15 and April 11 – the 106th and 133rd Martian Day (sols) of the mission – by the Instrument Deployment Camera placed on the robot arm. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Fortunately, the InSight team received an early warning that a dust storm was coming thanks to its detection by an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting vessel that maps the surface of Mars. Images from Mars Color Imager showed an impending sandstorm and now suggest that the regional storm is nearing its end.

To keep the lander safe, it was put into emergency mode on Friday 7 January, which meant it stopped collecting scientific data and used only minimal functions. This helps to preserve the power that was already a concern of the mission.

“Even before this recent sandstorm, dust was accumulating on InSight’s solar panels, reducing power to the lander,” NASA wrote in update. “Using the scoop on the lander’s robot arm, the InSight team came up with an innovative way to reduce dust on one panel and gained several energy injections in 2021, but these activities get more and more difficult as the available energy drops.”

The team hopes that their efforts will complete the lander until the sandstorm is over and they can resume their research activities. “InSight engineers hope to be able to order the lander out of emergency mode next week,” wrote NASA. “This will allow greater flexibility in the operation of the lander as communication, which requires a relatively large amount of power, is limited in degraded mode to conserve battery charge.”

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