Can we save Mars robots from death by dust?

InSight's 'final selfie' of April 24, 2022 shows a solar-powered lander caked in Martian dust.
NASA's InSight Mars lander died from dust overload. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Mars InSight lander died a slow death by dust last week. For months and months, the robot, built to study the tectonic activity on the Red Planet, has been running on less and less power as its 25-square-foott (4.2 square meters) solar power array gradually disappeared under a thick blanket of dust. On Wednesday (Dec. 21), NASA announced it hadn't heard from the lander for days, officially pronouncing the mission dead. 

InSight, which landed in the flat, seemingly uninteresting Elysium Planitia basin, south of Mars' equator in November 2018, exceeded its expected mission duration by two years. Still, many asked whether anything could have been done to save the otherwise perfectly healthy robot, which had been delivering groundbreaking science about the internal life of Mars

Related: NASA's Mars InSight lander ends mission after losing power

Cost versus benefit

In a Twitter thread (opens in new tab)posted about six weeks before InSight's ultimate demise, NASA explained the trade-offs faced by engineers when designing a mission for the notoriously dusty Mars.  

"People often ask: don’t I have a way to dust myself off (wiper, blower, etc.)? It’s a fair question, and the short answer is this," NASA wrote on the lander's Twitter account. "A system like that would have added cost, mass, and complexity. The simplest, most cost-effective way to meet my goals was to bring solar panels big enough to power my whole mission – which they did (and then some!)."

Dust storm season

When sending landers to Mars, space agencies usually try to avoid the planet's dust storm season, which occurs during Mars' northern autumn and winter periods. Since a year on Mars lasts about two Earth years, most of the recent landers and rovers, InSight included, made it through multiple dust storm seasons. The Curiosity rover, which is now in its 11th year on Mars and still going strong, has seen quite a few dust storm seasons. The rover even made measurements (opens in new tab) of the changing amount of dust accumulated on its sensors and deck, revealing how seasonal winds and dust devils help rovers keep going for longer. As it transpires, InSight was rather unlucky when it comes to Mars' natural cleaning aid. 

No dust devil car wash

Dust devils have been famously seen cleaning NASA's older generation of Mars rovers, Spirit (opens in new tab) and Opportunity. Opportunity, in particular, was able to continue its mission for over 14 years, exceeding its designed three-month lifetime dozens of times. Regular dust devil sweeps and wind-induced cleaning events played an important role in that record-breaking mission. At the end, a huge dust storm in 2019 finally overpowered the little rover, ending its record-breaking journey of discovery. 

According to Mike Williams, Chief Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, which is currently rethinking the dust defense approach for the European ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, InSight seemed to have been in a "particularly unfavorable position for dust removal."

The solar panels of NASA's InSight Mars lander are completely covered by dust.

NASA's InSight lander lost power because of dust covering its solar panels. (Image credit: NASA)

Tilting solar panels 

Williams agrees that NASA's approach of outsized solar panels is the best, safest and cheapest when it comes to dust-proofing Mars-exploring spacecraft. However, Airbus is currently looking at the possibility of adding a dedicated dust defense capability, and they have plenty of time to do that. The mission, built in cooperation with Russia, was suspended in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The planned September launch was canceled, and Airbus is now storing the ExoMars rover in a clean room as some critical components, originally built by Russia, have to be replaced. 

"Sizing the arrays to be able to manage the lower amount of sunlight that reaches them because of the dust is the best and simplest solution," Williams told Space.com. "It's the lowest level of complexity. It requires the least number of subsystems and functions and so it has the lowest risk. From the perspective of designing a mission, that's definitely the most preferable way of going about it."

Williams said that when the ExoMars mission was first conceived, engineers considered a plethora of dust cleaning technologies, including brushes, wipers, gas blowers and electrostatic wipers to get rid of the dust. At that time, they decided the rover, whose nominal mission in Oxia Planum was designed to last only 180 Martian days, or sols, didn't need to self-clean. With the new launch date now expected no earlier than 2028, they are rethinking their approach again.

"With ExoMars now being reborn, we are looking at possibly reinstating some of that capability," Williams said. "We could use something like solar panel tilting to possibly dislodge some of that dust. It would also help point the panels more efficiently at the sun, which may also have some benefits."

Williams added that Airbus engineers, just like NASA's, have to reconcile with the fact that ExoMars, just like other spacecraft on Mars, may eventually succumb to dust, and won't be disappointed if the rover outlasts its designed mission lifetime only marginally. Although they hope to get some help from Martian weather just like Spirit and Opportunity. 

"It's just, it's just the way it goes with space missions, unfortunately," Williams said. 

InSight's self-cleaning attempt

Even though InSight wasn't built to wipe dust off of itself, NASA made some last resort attempts to help the lander remove some of the dust in the final months of its life as the amount of electricity generated by its panels dwindled. 

In May, ground controllers commanded InSight's robotic arm to sprinkle a bit of sand across one of the lander's dust-covered panels. As wind blew the sand grains across the panel, they actually picked up some of the dust along the way, reducing the thickness of the sun-obstructing dust blanket. 

The operation enabled the lander to gain about 30 watt-hours of energy per sol at that time, according to a NASA statement (opens in new tab)

In the end, nature won. As it always does. And InSight certainly didn't go down without a fight.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.

  • Roger Sprouse
    To bad Ingenuity not close by a little prop wash might just fix her right up.
    Reply
  • Mr Anderson 42
    It should be possible to devise a simple and lightweight system to pull a brush across the solar panels and sweep them clean. On Insight the round panels might have made it a bit complicated but even in that case it should have been do-able.
    Reply
  • COLGeek
    Roger Sprouse said:
    To bad Ingenuity not close by a little prop wash might just fix her right up.
    A bit out of range...

    https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/pia25412-mars-dust-storm-in-relation-to-insight-curiosity-and-perseverance
    Reply
  • Ken Fabian
    InSight exceeded it's expected working life. It's capabilities would have had to be reduced to accommodate any cleaning system and failing to include it was never a design flaw. It was always likely that if it didn't break down in other ways that dust would get it in the end.
    Reply
  • Bill-NM
    Sorry, but some things (like cleaning panels to keep a mission alive) should be done just because they, well, SHOULD be done. (I'm not an engineer, and I'm sure that will come across clearly). :)

    Yes yes, dust removal systems add complexity, etc, and yes yes, the mission was only designed to be X months long, etc.

    But there's still the basic principle of throwing something perfectly good/expensive "in the trash".

    I just don't think that trashing something should be an option. It's just not "right" to trash things, esp things that cost a lot in money and man-hours.

    Yeah, I'm speaking from non-engineer/accountant perspective.
    Reply
  • beezer73
    Seems like a couple 12gram co2 cartridges would do the trick. I have a .50 cal pepper ball gun that uses one 12 gram cartridge and I've shot it 12x, not sure how many it will go but at 12 it was just as powerful as the first. VERY loud. Seems a burst or two like this would do the trick and wouldn't add much weight or cost.
    Reply
  • Steve Byers
    Roger Sprouse said:
    To bad Ingenuity not close by a little prop wash might just fix her right up.
    I thought the same thing awhile back and actually "emailed" NASA. Didn't realize how far away Ingenuity was. Seems like it might have worked.
    Reply
  • hsugeorge
    No. Not without billion's of $ for the current one.
    For the future, it's should'nt be that complicated to add a vibrator motor to shake off all the dust by folding the solar panel in a verticle position.
    Reply
  • donone101
    Bill-NM said:
    Sorry, but some things (like cleaning panels to keep a mission alive) should be done just because they, well, SHOULD be done. (I'm not an engineer, and I'm sure that will come across clearly). :)

    Yes yes, dust removal systems add complexity, etc, and yes yes, the mission was only designed to be X months long, etc.

    But there's still the basic principle of throwing something perfectly good/expensive "in the trash".

    I just don't think that trashing something should be an option. It's just not "right" to trash things, esp things that cost a lot in money and man-hours.

    Yeah, I'm speaking from non-engineer/accountant perspective.
    It seems that NASA has issues similar with Detroit's auto industry then and now, and its lack of thinking from the vantage point of the average person. Virtually everything NASA sends out in space is built to last a very long time. Not thinking through the possible dust issue and coming up with a simple fix just wasn't 'engineered', and should have been. It would be great to see these folks show the world what they're developing and ask for thoughts and ideas. Works for most of the world.
    Reply
  • CK JAG
    Of course if you make the product resiliant, you don't need more products, or more launches.
    Reply