The NASA InSight Lander was forced to enter safe mode last Friday as a Martian dust storm swept over its location. The ongoing storm has reduced the amount of sunlight hitting the lander’s solar panels, so mission controllers have reduced its activity to the bare minimum to reduce strain on the batteries.
Contact was reestablished with InSight on Monday, and the probe’s team found that the craft was in stable condition. A similar storm ended the Opportunity rover mission, as the rover’s batteries drained and NASA couldn’t get back in touch with the craft.
The InSight mission has yielded important science since it landed on Mars in 2018, including several papers published last July that described the Martian interior, from its crust to its core. But the probe’s tenure has been filled with frustration, too, after the failure of its “mole” device that was meant to be a major part of the mission. Dust has also been an issue: In June 2021, the amount of dust that had accumulated on the probe’s solar panels threatened the entire mission. NASA engineers were forced to MacGyver a solution, commanding the probe to drop bits of dirt onto the panels in an effort to dislodge the dust.
Unfortunately, the power needed to do those dust-clearing manoeuvres become more difficult to pull off as the lander’s available energy is depleted, a NASA release this week explained. The team believes that the lander can exit safe mode next week (weather dependent), which will give them more flexibility in how they command the probe.
The InSight mission is planned to last through December 2022. If previous close calls are any guide, the lander may emerge unscathed from the most recent dust debacle.