A dust storm challenges the InSight mission on Mars


NASA’s InSight mission to Mars, which is expected to end in the near future, has experienced a drop in power generated by its solar panels due to a major dust storm.

First observed on September 21, 2022 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the storm is located approximately 3,500 kilometers from InSight, in the Martian southern hemisphere, and initially had little impact on the lander.

The mission carefully monitors the lander’s power level, which has been steadily declining as dust accumulates on its solar panels. By Monday, October 3, the storm had grown large enough and was kicking up so much dust that the thickness of the dust haze in the Martian atmosphere had increased by almost 40% around InSight. With less sunlight reaching the lander’s panels, its energy dropped from 425 watt-hours per Martian day, or sol, to just 275 watt-hours per sol.

InSight’s seismometer has been running for about 24 hours every other Martian day. But the decline in solar energy does not leave enough energy to fully charge the batteries every sun. At the current discharge rate, the lander could only operate for several weeks. So, to conserve energy, the mission will turn off InSight’s seismometer for the next two weeks.

“We were on the bottom rung of our ladder as far as power goes. Now we’re on the ground floor,” he said. it’s a statement InSight project manager Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If we can get through this, we can continue to operate through the winter, but I would be concerned about the next storm coming.”

The team had estimated that InSight’s mission would end sometime between the end of October this year and January 2023, based on predictions of how much dust on its solar panels will reduce its power generation. The lander has long since outgrown its primary mission and is now nearing the end of its extended mission, conducting “additional science” by measuring ‘marsquakes’, which reveal details about the deep interior of the Red Planet.

There are signs that this large regional storm has peaked and entered its decay phase: MRO’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument, which measures the heating caused by sunlight absorbing dust, sees the growth of the storm is slowing down. And the clouds kicking up dust seen in images from the orbiter’s Mars Color Imager, which creates daily global maps of the Red Planet and was the first instrument to detect the storm, they are not expanding as fast as before.

This regional storm is not a surprise: It is the third such storm seen this year. In fact, Mars dust storms occur at all times of the Martian year, although more of them, and larger ones, occur during the northern fall and winter, which is drawing to a close.

Dust storms on Mars are not as violent or dramatic as Hollywood portrays them. While winds can blow up to 60 miles per hour, Martian air is light enough to have only a fraction of the force of storms on Earth. Most storms are messy: They dump dust into the atmosphere, which slowly falls back down, sometimes over weeks.

On rare occasions, scientists have seen dust storms turn into planet-encircling dust events that covered nearly all of Mars. One such planet-sized dust storm put an end to NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover in 2018.

Because they’re nuclear-powered, NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers have nothing to worry about in terms of a dust storm affecting their power. But the solar-powered Ingenuity helicopter you have noticed the general increase in background haze.