NASA's InSight Mars lander spotted from orbit, covered in dust

NASA's InSight lander is covered in dust in this March 9, 2022 image acquired by the High Resolution Science Experiment (MRO) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.
NASA's InSight lander is covered in dust in this March 9, 2022 image acquired by the High Resolution Science Experiment (MRO) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona)

The dust buildup on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's InSight Mars lander is severe enough to see from orbit.

You can see the red Martian regolith covering the lander, which touched down in November 2018, in a high-definition image acquired April 9 from the agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The spacecraft's High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) is often tasked with taking detailed pictures of spacecraft on the surface, especially when a robot finds itself in difficult circumstances. The InSight Mars lander went into safe mode in January briefly after so much dust covered its solar panels that little solar power was available to the lander, although power production has since recovered.

Related: Photos of NASA's InSight mission to probe the Red Planet's core

"Long-term change detection at sites, like the InSight landing area, tells us how dust moves around Mars and helps us understand how the surface evolves over time," the University of Arizona, which manages HiRISE, stated Friday (April 15).

The agency said in a February update that it expects power to continue only until midyear or so. "The solar panels of NASA's InSight lander are producing almost as much power as they did before the [January] storm. That power level should enable the lander to continue science operations into the summer," the update stated.

Images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show InSight shortly after landing and in March 2022. The photo on the left shows the blast zone created by the robot's November 2018 landing, as well as the parachute that helped the mission reach the surface. In the photo on the right, three and a half years' worth of dust have largely hidden these signs of spacecraft activity. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona)

InSight, which landed on the Red Planet in 2018, has been working on reduced power for a while due to dust buildup on its twin solar panels. Engineers managed to remove some dust on a single panel in 2021, by drizzling sand over the panel. But InSight hasn't been lucky enough to get a gust of wind to brush dust away.

As a result, last year, NASA warned that reduced power availability could end InSight's operations sometimes in 2022. Compounding the issue is the natural orbital cycle of Mars. In 2021, the planet reached its greatest distance from the sun, weakening available solar power, and seasonal cycles of dust activities are picking up.

The InSight lander, which was designed to last one Martian year (687 Earth days) is focused on understanding the interior of Mars, in particular by observing the Red Planet temblors dubbed marsquakes.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: