NASA’s Spacecraft InSight Mars Lander Gets a Power Boost

The spacecraft successfully clears some of the dust from its solar panels, helping to raise its energy and delay when it will need to switch off its science instruments.

The team behind NASA’s Insight Mars Lander has come up with a fancy way to increase the spacecraft’s power at a time when its power levels were declining. The lander’s robotic arm drives sand near a solar panel, helping the wind carry some of the panel’s dust. The result was a gain of about 30 watt-hours of power per sol, or Martian day.

Mars is approaching aphelion, its farthest point from the Sun. That means less sunlight reaches the spacecraft’s dust-covered solar panels, reducing their energy output. The team planned for this before the two-year mission expansion of Insight.

They set out on a mission to operate without science instruments for the next few months before resuming science activities later this year. During this time, Insight will save energy for its heaters, computers and other key components.

Power Boost will have to stop switching devices within a few weeks, gaining valuable time to gather additional science data. The team will try to clear a little more dust from these solar panels on Saturday, June 5, 2021.

Dust in the air

Insight’s team has been thinking of ways to try to remove dust from its solar panels for almost a year. For example, they tried to pulse the motors of the solar panel installation (until last time when Insight turned on the solar panels after landing) they could shake off the dust but were not successful.

Recently, several members of the science team have begun to follow the techniques of trickling sand near – but not directly on top of – the panels. Matt Golamback, a member of the InsightSite science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in mission-operated Southern California, noted that it may be possible to dust the sand granule panels that may be ” saltate” or hop off the solar panel surface and skip through the air in the air. Larger grains then carry smaller dust particles in the air.

To try the strategy, the team used Insight’s robotic arm scoop to extract sand next to Insight’s solar panel on May 22, 2021, the 884th sol of the mission, the windiest time of the day .

It was easiest for Insight’s arm to position itself on top of the lander’s deck, high enough for the winds to blow sand over the panels.Certainly, with a maximum of 20 feet (6 meters) of wind blowing northwest per second, the sand trawling coincides with an instantaneous bump in the overall power of the spacecraft.

“We weren’t sure it would work, but we’re glad it did,” Golemback said.

While this is no guarantee that the spacecraft has all the power it needs, the recent cleanup will add some helpful margins to Insight’s power reserves.

Surviving on Mars

Insight’s panels have spanned a two-year prime mission designed for them, and now they’re strengthening the spacecraft with a two-year extension. Relying on solar panels for power enables such missions to be as light as possible to launch and require fewer running parts than other systems – thus, fewer potential failure points.

Equipping the spacecraft with brushes or fans to remove dust will add aspects of weight and failure. (Some members of the public have suggested using the rotating blades of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter to clear Insight panels, but this is not an option): The operation will be very risky and the helicopter will be about 2,145 miles or 3,452 kilometers away. )

However, as Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers showed, gusts and vortices can clear solar panels over time. In the case of Insight, the spacecraft’s weather sensors detected many passing vortices, but none were able to clear the dust.

By August, as Mars moves in its orbit closer to the Sun, Insight’s solar panels will be able to collect more energy, allowing the team to re-launch science instruments. Depending on the energy available, they turn to something for short periods of time in the main times of the day, as they are doing to save energy.

Whether the instruments are turned on or off, Insight operations will pause again in October 7, when Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun. known as the Mars Solar Conjunction, occurs every two years.

As the sun’s plasma could intercept radio signals sent into space at that time, all of NASA’s Mars missions would become more passive, recording data and sending updates to engineers on Earth, although no new orders would be sent to them. The moratorium on Mars commands will last several weeks until late October.

More about the mission

JPL conducts insights for NASA’s Department of Science Mission. Insight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, run by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the Insight spacecraft with its cruise stage and lander and supports managing spacecraft for missions.

Several European partners, including France’s Central National D’Tudes Spatials (CNES) and the German Space 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 to SEIS came from IPGP; 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. The DLR has provided heat flow and physical property package (HP3) instrument with 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.