NASA is forced to end its Mars lander mission early because of the dust.
Officials announced on Tuesday that the InSight spacecraft is slowly losing power as its two solar panels are covered in dust.
Additionally, dust levels in the atmosphere are only increasing and sunlight is decreasing as Mars enters winter, accelerating the loss of power.
Power levels will likely shut down in July – ending operations – and by the end of the year project managers expect InSight to be “inoperable”.
“People can obviously relate that in their homes they have to dust because the dust is settling in,” InSight project manager Chuck Scott told ABC News. “It’s the same kind of thing with these solar panels. We have dust in the atmosphere of Mars that gets kicked up because of the local weather… storms where the dust gets kicked up because there’s a lot of wind.”
“Because Mars’ atmosphere is thinner, it rises into the upper atmosphere and can be distributed more widely than it would on Earth and will deposit on everything below, including our ship. space and solar panels,” he added.
InSight currently generates about a tenth of the power it had when it landed on Mars in November 2018.
When the spacecraft first landed, the solar panels were producing 5,000 watt hours for every Martian day, enough to power an electric furnace for an hour and 40 minutes, NASA said. Currently, the panels produce 500 watt-hours per Martian day, just enough to power an electric furnace for 10 minutes.
Project leaders expected the gradual accumulation of dust on the solar panels, but hoped that wind vortices on Mars would have cleaned some of it, but none have done so so far.
“Two rovers that we returned in 2003, they both went through what we would call ‘natural cleaning’ or ‘dust cleaning events,'” Scott said. “These winds passed over the vehicles and removed a lot of the dust from the solar panels of those vehicles. We kind of hoped that would happen with a stationary lander.”
Due to low power, the team will place InSight’s robotic arm in a resting position known as a “retirement pose” later this month. Then, by the end of the summer, the lander’s seismometer will only be on at certain times, such as at night when the winds are less strong.
Because energy is conserved for the seismometer, NASA said non-seismic instruments “will rarely be turned on” starting next month.
InSight has detected more than 1,300 earthquakes since it landed, the most recent of which occurred on May 4. Data collected from earthquakes has helped scientists understand the composition of Mars’ deep interior, including the planet’s crust, mantle and core.
NASA said the lander achieved its primary goals in its first two years on Mars and is currently on an extended mission.
“There was really nothing known about the interior of Mars,” Scott said. “Why this is important is that NASA looked at how our own planets formed in the solar system, especially rocky ones like Venus, Earth, Mars, and even our own Moon.”
This isn’t the first time NASA has terminated a Mars lander due to dust.
Opportunity, a robotic rover, landed on the planet in 2004 and operated until June 2018, when a global dust storm completely covered its solar panels, ending communications with project leaders.