NASA’s InSight Waits Out Dust Storm


NASA’s InSight Mars lander took this final selfie on April 24, 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The lander’s solar panels have become covered with dust since the lander touched down on Mars in November 2018, which has led to a gradual decline in its power level.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight’s team is taking steps to help the solar-powered lander continue operating for as long as possible.

NASA’s InSight mission, which is expected to end in the near future, saw a recent drop in power generated by its solar panels as a continent-size dust storm swirls over Mars’ southern hemisphere. First observed on Sept. 21, 2022, by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the storm is roughly 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from InSight 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 arrays. By Monday, Oct. 3, the storm had grown large enough and was lofting so much dust that the thickness of the dusty haze in the Martian atmosphere had increased by nearly 40% around InSight. With less sunlight reaching the lander’s panels, its energy fell from 425 watt-hours per Martian day, or sol, to just 275 watt-hours per sol.

InSight’s seismometer has been operating for about 24 hours every other Martian day. But the drop in solar power does not leave enough energy to completely charge the batteries every sol. At the current rate of discharge, the lander would be able to operate only for several weeks. So to conserve energy, the mission will turn off InSight’s seismometer for the next two weeks.

“We were at about the bottom rung of our ladder when it comes to power. Now we’re on the ground floor,” said InSight’s project manager, Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If we can ride this out, we can keep operating into winter – but I’d worry about the next storm that comes along.”

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

Beige clouds seen in this global map of Mars

The beige clouds seen in this global map of Mars are a continent-size dust storm captured on Sept. 29, 2022, by the Mars Climate Imager camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA’s Perseverance, Curiosity, and InSight missions are labeled, showing the vast distances between them.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Studying Martian Storms

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 dust absorbing sunlight, sees the storm’s growth slowing down. And the dust-raising clouds observed in pictures from the orbiter’s Mars Color Imager camera, which creates daily global maps of the Red Planet and was the first instrument to spot the storm, are not expanding as rapidly as before.

This regional storm isn’t a surprise: It’s the third storm of its kind that’s been seen this year. In fact, Mars dust storms occur at all times of the Martian year, although more of them – and bigger ones – occur during northern fall and winter, which is coming to an end.

Mars dust storms aren’t as violent or dramatic as Hollywood portrays them. While winds can blow up to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour), the Martian air is thin enough that it has just a fraction of the strength of storms on Earth. Mostly, the storms are messy: They toss billowing dust high into the atmosphere, which slowly drops back down, sometimes taking weeks.

On rare occasions, scientists have seen dust storms grow into planet-encircling dust events, which cover almost all of Mars. One of these planet-size dust storms brought NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover to an end in 2018.

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

Besides monitoring storms for the safety of NASA missions on the Martian surface, MRO has spent 17 years collecting invaluable data about how and why these storms form. “We’re trying to capture the patterns of these storms so we can better predict when they’re about to happen,” Zurek said. “We learn more about Mars’ atmosphere with each one we observe.”

More About the Mission

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages InSight for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

JPL also manages MRO and its Mars Climate Sounder instrument for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space built MRO. The Mars Climate Imager camera, or MARCI, was built and is managed by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.

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October 8, 2022 10:08 pm

All it needs is a dust devil.

Dudley Horscroft
Reply to  gbaikie
October 8, 2022 10:45 pm

Next version needs a shaker so that the solar panels can be kept reasonably clear. May take a lot of power but only needed half a dozen times a year

Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
October 9, 2022 1:25 am

I would think a better idea would be to make it so the panels can be folded up or turned vertically or both. Less risk of damage than vibrating them that way I would think.

Reply to  rah
October 9, 2022 9:00 am

Maybe panels on one side and a soft, round brush on the other? Turn them one way and one side gets brushed, turn the other, second panel, then back up panels exposed.

Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
October 9, 2022 2:13 am

And the plan is that the center of Australia in the middle of a desert is going to be the biggest solar farm in the world, supplying energy to Singapore over 4,000 km away. Pull the other one.

Basically the same as Mars, extensive dust storms and just where is the water going to come from to clean them all

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
October 9, 2022 4:51 am

I think a compressor which then blows the panels clean would be a better solution.

Reply to  Michael S. Kelly
October 9, 2022 10:06 am

Weight will have to remain the biggest criteria. Extra weight either means you have to eliminate some of the science experiments, or it means the over all cost of the probe (and the cost of getting it to Mars) goes up.
Both the primary and extended mission agendas have been achieved, is extending the life of the mission by another year, worth the cost?

Chris Hall
Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
October 9, 2022 6:55 am

I agree. Alternative methods like rotating the panels and/or using a compressor are too complex, heavy and power hungry. All they need to do is use a low power high frequency vibrator. It could just be an electromagnet tied to an oscillator circuit that is tuned to the resonant frequency or frequencies of the panel. A few seconds of vibrating a month should do the trick. There’s no moisture and virtually no “air” pressure, so the dust should just fly off. If the panels have the slightest tilt, you’re guaranteed to not have the dust linger on the panel. Sweeping through frequencies would prevent any lines of dust hanging around at vibration nodes. The risk to electrical connections would be minuscule compared to launch, re-entry, landing and wind storms

Paul Johnson
Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
October 9, 2022 9:28 pm

Since the panels only fan out after touch-down, a small modification to allow the deployment mechanism to “jiggle” the panels might be sufficient.

October 8, 2022 11:56 pm

I wonder what happens to the thermal radiant opacity of the Martian atmosphere at times like this? Well, it’s certainly not transparent at the moment as it seems to me to be opaque just now. (Yes, this comment is meant to be obscure).
See here for where I am going with this one:
The Application of the Dynamic Atmosphere Energy Transport Climate Model (DAET) to Earth’s semi-opaque troposphere
Hint: Our semi-opaque DAET model works for Mars too.

Peta of Newark
October 9, 2022 1:03 am

Seriously, do think about it, why doesn’t it go and shelter under a tree.

Because and unless the current outbreak of mental derangement doesn’t end in the not-so-distant, that exact same problem is coming to Planet Earth.

And the very name of the thing gives the reason why.

October 9, 2022 1:26 am

Unfortunately the 1980’s anti-nuke tinfoil hat brigade got the idea of powering mars rovers with solar. Nuclear powered rovers would have run for 35+ years.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  DPP
October 9, 2022 6:03 am

Perseverance employs a Pu-238 radioisotope thermal generator (RTG). It won’t have the same problems. Pu-238 is in short supply, however, and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon. On the other hand, Americium 241 is abundant, and comparatively cheap. It has a longer half-life than Pu-238, so it’s specific power is lower – but that also means it lasts longer.

Reply to  DPP
October 9, 2022 10:09 am

35 years would be overkill. Given the harsh conditions of Mars, most probes and Rovers begin to break down well before then.

October 9, 2022 1:37 am

“..:a continent-size dust storm swirls over Mars’ “

See what just a few SUV rovers have done to the Martian climate?


Captain climate
October 9, 2022 3:15 am

No mechanism designed on the probe to get it to blow or tip the dust off?

October 9, 2022 5:26 am

Voilà! Nuclear beats PVs!

October 9, 2022 9:21 am

The mission carefully monitors the lander’s power level, which has been steadily declining as dust accumulates on its solar arrays.”

Mars is severely dusty? Quelle Surprise!

That mars is very dusty is old news, realized long before NASA cooked up this mission.
Now, NASA knows about Mars’ dust for real.

October 9, 2022 1:47 pm

Another failure of renewables. Maybe they should have tried wind turbines. Nope, would have gritted up. The nuclear option is the only one that will work.

Gunga Din
October 9, 2022 2:40 pm

Solar panels in space is a niche and makes sense.
I’m sure that dust for a lander is a problem they didn’t ignore.
Did they decide it wasn’t worth addressing it?
Or did the remedies, whatever they are, only work for so long?

Reply to  Gunga Din
October 9, 2022 6:28 pm

The remedy is to oversize the solar panels. The problem is that as the craft ages, the total amount of energy being created by the panels decrease. The article mentions that the probe has survived a number of previous dust storms with minimal problems.
Given that the craft has completed all of the primary mission tasks as well as all of the extended mission tasks, I would say the engineers calculations were pretty accurate.

October 10, 2022 5:12 am

Robots do this exploration gig so much cheaper than humans would.

October 10, 2022 6:43 am

Every solar powered lander needs a drone to hover above it to clear the dust from the panels occasionally.

Andy Pattullo
October 10, 2022 9:39 am

Can’t we send some “climate change experts” there to blow off the dust? They all think Earth will be uninhabitable soon anyway so we’d be doing them a favour by offering a chance to be first off the sinking ship.

Reply to  Andy Pattullo
October 12, 2022 9:40 am

Pols have the ‘capacity’ to do it.

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