What Dust Clearings Mean For NASA's InSight Lander

According to scientists, at one point in its planetary life, Mars had a really thick atmosphere and around 20 percent of its surface was covered in water. However, after losing its magnetic field, the planet became victim to violent solar winds as well as dust storms.

These dust storms probably finished off Mars’ oceans and lakes and now, billions of years later, the same dust storms may spell either life or death for its visitors from other planets. Namely, the rovers that came from our own planet.

One in particular is Opportunity, a rover that did explorations on Mars from 2004. Time and again, these dust storms helped clean the rover’s solar panels, giving it another energy boost. As a result, the plucky rover and its little sister, named Spirit, were able to survive way beyond the standard 90-day expiration rates.

However, back in May 2018, a dust storm completely covered Opportunity’s solar panels, prompting the rover to lose power. It was then declared dead by NASA back in February this year. For all that it has done, however, dust clearings are still responsible for boosting the rover’s power, sometimes for as much as 10 percent.

And now, scientists and engineers from NASA are hoping the same boosts will be extended to the InSight lander, Mars’ newest inhabitant.

Unexpected solar boosts

The new rover already had a taste of this boost. On Feb. 1, InSight managed to detect a passing wind vortex. At the time, its two solar panels received about 0.7 and 2.7 percent boost, respectively. This suggests that passing winds are indeed capable of lifting dust off of the panels.

“It didn't make a significant difference to our power output, but this first event is fascinating science … It gives us a starting point for understanding how the wind is driving changes on the surface. We still don't really know how much wind it takes to lift dust on Mars," InSight science team member Ralph Lorenz, from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, said.

Per the scientists, the event gives them the first-ever recorded “live” interaction of wind and dust on the Red Planet. They added that while they’re waiting for dust clearings that are as strong as the ones experienced by Opportunity and Spirit, they have enough power for now.