Mars lander InSight woke up from safe mode after dust storm

NASA’s InSight lander on Mars has returned to normal operations after a pause of around two weeks due to a regional dust storm. The lander is currently active, but its scientific instruments will remain off until the full effects of the dust storm can be ascertained.

Mars is the dustiest place in the solar system, with a combination of low gravity due to its small size and a thin atmosphere with lots of air currents due to temperature changes. That means dust can be easily kicked up from the surface, creating regional or even global dust storms that researchers are only beginning to understand. But more than a meteorological oddity, this has a direct impact on machinery on the planet’s surface.

This NASA InSight lander selfie is a mosaic of 14 images taken on March 15 and April 11—the 106th and 133rd Martian days, or sol, of the mission—by the spacecraft’s Instrument Deployment Camera, centered on his robotic arm. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dust storms cause problems for explorers like InSight, which rely on solar panels in two ways. First, the dust in the atmosphere filters the already relatively weak sunlight that Mars experiences, so less light reaches the surface. Second, the dust settles on the solar panels, blocking even more light. This is why dust storms have spelled the end of previous Mars explorers, such as the long-lived Opportunity rover that went dark after a regional dust storm in 2018, and also why the Ingenuity Mars helicopter team chose to do so delay his last flight.

To keep explorers like InSight running for as long as possible, engineers put them into safe mode when they know a dust storm is approaching. This minimal mode turns off all but the essential components of the lander to exchange power. Earlier this month, the InSight team received a warning from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an orbiting Mars observation ship, that a dust storm was on the way and they Put the lander in safe mode on January 7th.

In a Jan. 19 update, the InSight team confirmed that InSight has weathered its nearly two-week hiatus and is back on track now that the storm has passed. “NASA’s InSight exited safe mode and resumed normal operations, although its science instruments remain powered off. The sky appears to be clearing of dust above the spacecraft,” NASA wrote. “Over the next two weeks, the mission team will assess the impact of dust accumulation on the lander’s performance.”

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