On June 3, as NASA's InSight Mars lander was struggling through a slow, painful, and powerless death, its team at NASA managed to boost it back to life with a simple trick.
The spacecraft was directed by the team to dig up and drop some sand onto its dust-caked solar panels. The sand along with wind helped to push some of that dust away, and enabled the InSight lander's solar panels to juice up on some much-needed energy, said NASA in a press release.
The team had been brainstorming ways of clearing the dust-covered solar panels for almost a year, but ultimately, it was this technique that ended up working the best. Still, the result only gave a gain of 30 watt-hours of energy per Martian day, but it's something.
"We weren’t sure this would work, but we’re delighted that it did," Matt Golombek, a member of the InSight science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said.
For the time being, InSight's science instruments can keep working, but not for much longer.
Sun on Mars
The Mars lander's power levels have been slowly falling, sending it into hibernation mode in April. The reasons behind its decline in energy are linked to Mars' winter, as well as the fact that the Red Planet is approaching aphelion — its farthest point from the Sun.
This means less sunlight will reach the planet, and as InSight relies on solar energy to function, it's struggling to keep moving. This wasn't a surprise for the NASA team, who had planned for this by designing the mission to operate without science instruments for the next few months, before rebooting them later this year.
InSight's mission on Mars was extended by two years, after having already served two years on the planet. The spacecraft's solar panels, in fact, outlasted the two-year mission they were designed for.
The reason solar panels were chosen as the source of power for InSight is because they are much lighter than other systems. This creates fewer issues during the launch time, as the entire payload is lighter, says NASA.
On top of that, even though the team predicted that dust might stick to the solar panels, no brushes or fans to sweep off dust were added to the lander. Again, because they would add weight and could potentially complicate failure points.
NASA relied on the information it had gathered from the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, which demonstrated how gusts and whirlwinds can clear solar panels with time. However, with InSight, no whirlwinds have so far managed to clear it of its dust.
The InSight Mars lander had a lucky save this time around, and here's hoping it'll keep its lucky streak going.