Can we save the Martian robots from death by dust?
Can we save the Martian robots from death by dust?
NASA’s Mars InSight probe died a slow death from dust last week. For months, the robot, built to study tectonic activity on the Red Planet, has been running on less and less power as its 25-square-foot (4.2-square-meter) solar power array wears out gradually under a thick blanket of dust. . On Wednesday (Dec. 21), NASA announced that it had not heard from the lander in days, officially declaring the mission dead.
perspicacityWhich one landed in the plain and seemingly uninteresting basin of Elysium Planitiasouth of March‘ Ecuador in November 2018, he exceeded the planned duration of his mission by two years. Still, many questioned whether anything could have been done to save the perfectly healthy robot, which had been providing groundbreaking science on the inner life of Mars.
Related: NASA’s Mars InSight lander ends mission after running out of power
Cost versus benefit
In a Twitter thread (opens in a new tab)released about six weeks before InSight’s final demise, NASA explained the pitfalls engineers face when designing a mission to the notoriously dusty Mars.
“People often ask: Don’t I have a way to remove the dust (wipers, blowers, etc.)? It’s a fair question, and the short answer is this,” NASA wrote on the lander’s Twitter account . “Such a system would have added cost, mass, and complexity. The simplest and most cost-effective way to achieve my goals was to carry solar panels large enough to power my entire mission, which they did (and then!).”
Dust storm season
When sending landers to Mars, space agencies usually try to avoid those on the planet dust storm season, which occurs during the autumn and winter periods of northern Mars. Since a year on Mars lasts about two land years, most recent landers and rovers, including InSight, weathered several seasons of dust storms. The Curiosity rover, now entering its 11th year on Mars and still going strong, has seen quite a few seasons of dust storms. The rover even measurements made (opens in a new tab) of the changing amount of dust accumulated on its sensors and cover, revealing how seasonal winds and dust devils help the rovers go on longer. As it turns out, InSight was pretty unlucky when it came to Mars’ natural cleanup help.
No dust devil car wash
Dust devils have famously been seen cleaning up NASA’s older generation of Mars rovers. spirit (opens in a new tab) i opportunity. Opportunity, in particular, was able to continue its mission for more than 14 years, exceeding its designed life of three months by dozens of times. Regular Dust Devil Broom and wind-induced clearing events played a major role in this record-breaking mission. In the end, a a large dust storm in 2019 finally overwhelmed the little roverending his record voyage of discovery.
According to Mike Williams, chief engineer at Airbus Defense and Space, which is currently rethinking the dust defense approach for the European ExoMars rover Rosalind FranklinInSight appeared to have been in a “particularly unfavorable position for dust removal”.
Tiltable solar panels
Williams agrees that NASA’s approach to large-scale solar panels is the best, safest and cheapest when it comes to keeping dust off Mars-exploring spacecraft. However, Airbus is currently looking into adding a dedicated dust defense capability, and they have plenty of time to do so. The mission, built in cooperation with Russia, was suspended following the Russian 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, need to be replaced.
“Sizing the arrays to be able to handle the least amount of sunlight reaching them due to 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 therefore has the least risk. From a mission design perspective, that’s certainly the most preferable way to do it “.
Williams said that when the ExoMars mission was conceived, engineers considered a host of dust-cleaning technologies, including brushes, wipers, gas blowers and electrostatic wipers to get rid of the dust. At that point, they decided that the rover, whose nominal mission to Oxia Planum was designed to last only 180 Martian days, or so, didn’t need to self-clean. With the new release date now expected to be no earlier than 2028, they are rethinking their approach again.
“With ExoMars being reborn, we’re looking at potentially restoring some of that capability,” Williams said. “We could use something like tilting the solar panel to possibly dislodge some of that dust. It would also help point the panels more efficiently at the sun, which may have some benefits as well.”
Williams added that Airbus engineers, like those at NASA, must come to terms with the fact that ExoMars, like other spacecraft on Mars, may eventually succumb to dust, and they won’t be disappointed if the rover it exceeds its designed mission life only marginally. Although they hope to get help from Martian weather like Spirit and Opportunity.
“Unfortunately, that’s what happens with space missions,” Williams said.
InSight self-cleaning attempt
Although InSight wasn’t built to clear dust, NASA made some last-ditch attempts to help the lander clear some of the dust in the final months of its life as the amount of electricity generated by its panels was reduced.
In May, ground controllers ordered InSight’s robotic arm to sprinkle some sand across one of the lander’s dust-covered panels. As the wind blew the grains of sand across the panel, they actually picked up some of the dust along the way, reducing the thickness of the sun-blocking dust blanket.
The operation allowed the lander to gain about 30 watt-hours of power from the sun at the time, according to a NASA. statement (opens in a new tab).
In the end, nature won. As it always happens. And InSight certainly didn’t go down without a fight.
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