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Mars lander losing power because of dust on solar panels


(NEW YORK) — NASA is being forced to end its Mars lander mission early because of dust.

Officials announced Tuesday the InSight spacecraft is slowly losing power because its two solar panels are covered in dust.

Morever, the dust levels in the atmosphere are only increasing and sunlight is decreasing as Mars enters winter, which is speeding up the loss of power.

Power levels will likely die out in July — effectively ending operations — and, by the end of the year, project leaders expect InSight will be “inoperative.”

InSight is currently generating about one-tenth of the power it was when it landed on Mars in November 2018.

When the spacecraft first landed, the solar panels were producing 5,000 watt-hour for each Martian day, enough to power an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes, NASA said. Currently, the panels are producing 500 watt-hour per Martian day, only enough to power an electric oven for 10 minutes.

Project leaders had expected the gradual dust buildup on the solar panels, but had hoped passing whirlwinds on Mars might have cleaned some of it off, but none have so far.

“We’ve been hoping for a dust cleaning,” Dr. Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of the InSight Project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said in a statement. “That’s still possible, but energy is low enough that our focus is making the most of the science we can still collect.”

Due to the lower power, the team will put InSight’s robotic arm in a resting position known as “retirement pose” later this month. Then, by the end of the summer, the lander’s seismometer will only be turned on at certain times, such as night when winds are not as high.

Because energy is being preserved for the seismometer, NASA said non-seismic instruments “will rarely be turned on” starting next month.

InSight has detected more than 1,300 quakes since its landing, the most recent of which occurred on May 4. The data gathered from the marsquakes have helped scientists understand the composition of Mars’s deep interior, including the planet’s crust, mantle and core.

NASA said the lander had completed its primary goals during its first two years on Mars and was currently on an extended mission.

“InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions,” Dr. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. “We can apply what we’ve learned about Mars’ inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems.”

This is not the first time NASA has ended a Mars lander due to dust.

Opportunity, a robotic rover, landed on the planet in 2004 and was in operation until June 2018, when a global dust storm completely covered its solar panels, which ended communications with project leaders.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory did not immediately reply to ABC News’ request for comment.

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