Continent-sized Martian dust storm hits NASA module

Continent-sized Martian dust storm hits NA module.  (Photo: NASA/JPL via AP)

Continent-sized Martian dust storm hits NA module. (Photo: NASA/JPL via AP)

  • NASA’s InSight spacecraft has been struggling on Mars for some time;

  • The storm caused a large drop in power available to the solar-powered spacecraft;

  • The InSight team turned off most of the probe’s instruments.

NASA’s InSight spacecraft has been struggling on Mars for some time now, and the module’s life seems to be getting increasingly difficult. That’s because a continent-sized Martian dust storm — which began in late September — is putting additional strain on the spacecraft’s power supply.

In early October, NASA noticed a huge drop in power available to the solar-powered spacecraft. “By Monday, October 3, the storm had grown enough and was kicking up so much dust that the thickness of the dusty haze in the Martian atmosphere had increased nearly 40% around InSight,” the agency said in a statement on Friday. With the storm brewing, the lander was no longer able to fully charge its batteries.

The lander’s solar panels were already covered in dust, a condition that left it low on power as it neared the end of the mission. The InSight team turned off most of the probe’s instruments, leaving only the seismometer running to try to detect as many earthquakes as possible for as long as possible.

NASA concluded that at the current rate of charge, the lander would be able to operate for a short time. “Then, to save energy, the mission will turn off InSight’s seismometer for the next two weeks,” the space agency said.

There is a little bit of good news, as the regional storm may have reached its peak and will soon subside. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is monitoring the storm from above and has seen signs of a slowdown in the storm’s growth.

InSight has had both triumphs and challenges since landing on Mars in 2018. It has revealed new information about the red planet’s interior and recorded earthquake activity, including a massive earthquake earlier this year.

InSight’s final days will remain uncertain for now. Said InSight project manager Chuck Scott: “If we can get through this, we can continue operating in the winter (December to February) – but I would worry about the next storm that comes.”

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