A massive, continent-sized storm is raging on Mars, and it could pose trouble for NASA's already weakened InSight lander.
As a continent-sized dust storm swirls over Mars’ southern hemisphere, NASA’s InSight mission, which is expected to end soon, saw its solar panels lose power. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) first observed the storm on Sept. 21, 2022, roughly 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from InSight. In response to dust accumulation on the lander’s solar arrays, the mission carefully monitors the power level of the lander. InSight was surrounded by a dusty haze that had increased in thickness by nearly 40% by Monday, Oct. 3, as the storm grew larger and lofted more dust, increasing the storm’s size. In the absence of sunlight, the lander’s panels could receive 275 watt-hours per sol instead of 425 watt-hours each day.
Powering down the Seismometer
Almost every other Martian day, InSight’s seismometer operates for 24 hours. The seismometer is a key component of the mission. It has greatly helped us understand what Marsquakes are like. Solar power declines too fast for the batteries to be fully charged every sol. Currently, the lander can only operate for several weeks at its current rate of discharge. During the next two weeks, InSight’s seismometer will be turned off to conserve energy.
As far as power is concerned, we were at the bottom of the ladder. Now we are on the ground floor,” said Chuck Scott, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If we can ride this out, we can keep operating into winter – but I’d worry about the next storm that comes along.”According to predictions of how much dust on InSight’s solar panels will reduce its power generation, the mission should end within this year and January 2023. Having long since completed its primary mission, the lander is now close to the end of its extended mission, measuring marsquakes, a method that reveals details about Mars’ deep interior.
Calm after the storm
The MRO’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument, which measures the heat absorbed by dust when it absorbs sunlight, shows signs that this large, regional storm has peaked and is entering its decay phase. Mars Color Imager camera, which provides a daily global mapping of Mars and was the first instrument to identify the storm, also shows that the dust-raising clouds aren’t expanding as quickly.
We’ve seen three Martian storms of this kind this year, so it’s not surprising. The Martian year is filled with dust storms all year round, although they are more frequent and bigger during northern fall and winter, which is coming to an end. Winds on Mars can reach 60 mph (97 kph) during a storm. Due to its thin atmosphere, storms on Mars are only a fraction as powerful as those on Earth. Most of the time, storms produce messy clouds of dust that rise into the atmosphere before slowly falling to the ground, sometimes taking weeks to do so.
Planet-sized dust storms
On rare occasions, dust storms have grown into events that cover almost the entire planet. A planet-sized dust storm killed NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover in 2018. Neither NASA’s Curiosity nor Perseverance rovers will be affected by dust storms since they are nuclear-powered. The solar-powered Ingenuity helicopter has been noticing a general rise in background haze, however.
MRO has spent 17 years collecting valuable data about these storms, including how and why they form. MRO monitors storms on Mars for the safety of NASA missions. Zurek explained that they are trying to capture the patterns of these storms so they can better predict when they will occur. “We learn more about Mars’ atmosphere with each one we observe.” InSight survived a strong dust storm in January of 2022.
Have something to add? Visit Curiosmos on Facebook. Join the discussion and participate in awesome giveaways in our mobile Telegram group. Join Curiosmos on Telegram Today. t.me/Curiosmos