back to article NASA's InSight doomed as Mars dust coats solar panels

The Martian InSight lander will no longer be able to function within months as dust continues to pile up on its solar panels, starving it of energy, NASA reported on Tuesday. Launched from Earth in 2018, the six-metre-wide machine's mission was sent to study the Red Planet below its surface. InSight is armed with a range of …

  1. thx1111

    Insight?

    So, it just never occurred to anyone on the development team that dust accumulation on the solar panels could be a problem?

    Or, they just could not wrap their heads around the challenge of designing "windshield wipers" for solar panels on another planet?

    What am I missing here?

    1. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Insight?

      They assumed Mark Watney would be there?

    2. Michael Hoffmann

      Re: Insight?

      I can say from first hand experience that some kind of "windshield wiper" would be the last thing you want to use on solar panels. Without some kind of washing fluid, that is. The wiping would be really abrasive to both wipers and the panel.

      Could something anti-static work?

      1. tip pc Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        F1 cameras have a film that rotates, f1 drivers have tear off strips on their visors.

        I'd have built a mechanism to rotate a clear film over the panels. Perhaps only a small portion of the panels needs protecting so that some reserve power is maintained in old age?

        https://www.f1technical.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8397

        1. JT_3K

          Re: Insight?

          I would be inclined to agree with you but it's a particularly fine dust. I'm reminded of the stories of Australian car rental companies asking people to sign a clause that they wouldn't take cars in to the outback because of the fine dust getting in everywhere. The story I read was that some guy had come in, signed everything, taken a (low cost) full damage waiver and been given a brand new Suzuki 4wd which he'd promptly driven in to the outback and spent a week hooning about with extra fuel cans in the back. On return, apparently there was so much dust the car was a write off. Even the speedo was ~1/4 full of dust as a line like an hourglass. A rotatable film would probably just mean it was less likely the wind would blow it off

      2. brainwrong

        Could something anti-static work?

        Yes, but probably not on a Mars mission.

        https://news.mit.edu/2022/solar-panels-dust-magnets-0311

        It involves moving an electrode over the panel, with the correct voltage applied between that and a transparent electrode covering the front of the panel. It requires relative humidity of 30% or greater, which would be the killer for this.

        As a side note, I despair at the quality of much scientific news writing. The system described in the article above has nothing to do with magnets.

        1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

          Re: Could something anti-static work?

          "The system described in the article above has nothing to do with magnets."

          Electromagnetism at a stretch. "magnets" only appears in the URL, not in the article. It would seem whoever created the URL didn't even read the article.

        2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

          Re: Could something anti-static work?

          The UV/light sensors on the Curiosity weather station have magnets around them to minimise light blocking by ferrous dust - and it works to an extent; you see the accumulated dust around them like doughnuts! Of course not all the dust is affected by the magnets.

    3. Timbo Bronze badge

      Re: Insight?

      I think the issue with Mars atmosphere and the winds that sweep over the surface, is that:

      there is no liquid (in the form of rain) that could wash the dust away - and even if there was some drizzle, that could just turn the dust into sludge

      there is no easy way of "brushing" the dust away, (which could cause damage to the surface of the solar panels)

      alternative mechanisms could be used but each has weight or other implications, such as motorised panels that could rotate, or maybe small off-centred weights fitted to small motors that could "vibrate" the panels, which might help shift the dust, but it might also lead to too much structural vibration and the panels might stop working.

      Personally, I think the solar panels should be in an inverted V "shape" (like the 2 sides of a tent) and then rotated once the lander has landed to face-on to both sunrise and sunset...the panels themselves would then be maybe at 25-30 degrees (relative to the ground) and hence no dust could rest on the surface as they wouldn't be horizontal !

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        I wonder about - rather than a solid wiper - something like a feather duster. Lightweight, and cost a couple of quid down at the pound shop. There doesn't seem any obvious reason why it can't clean martian dust as well as cobwebs.

        Though the NASA version would of course require fifteen years of testing and cost at least a million dollars: NASA seems to have given up on the 'try it and see' approach, but in something like this the worst that could happen is that it just doesn't work.

        1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

          Re: Insight?

          I was surprised that they didn't take more action over dust accumulation but then they did design that "I told you it wouldn't work" mole ...

          The issue of cleaning abrasion is not significant. Abrasion would indeed cause reduction in peak output however as it would not be regular but only carried out once or twice during the mission - perhaps when power levels fall to 10% or whatever is deemed a critical level - cleaning could only be beneficial in that situation. If each wipe/dust/brush/hoover/blow/shake/tilt could potentially extend the life of a potentially doomed mission by another sol there has to be an argument for it ...

          On the other "economics" hand, if the costing of the mission is based on a life of say 1 sol and cleaning is not expected to be required after 2, it would result in extra costs above and beyond the mission objective and would therefore not attract funding ... Unfortunately the "supported life" of a mission and the "potential life" of a mission are two different budgetary animals and given Insight has already exceeded its mission lifetime by two years perhaps the discussion is moot ...

          1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

            Re: Insight?

            Obvious solution: send Elon Musk up with a feather duster and a couple of hours' worth of air.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Insight?

          "cost a couple of quid down at the pound shop."

          errrr...wot? :-)

          1. Spherical Cow

            Re: Insight?

            " errrr...wot? :-) "

            Well, we'd need two feather dusters, right? One to send to Mars, and one for the identical rover we keep here for testing/troubleshooting. So yeah, a couple of quid down at the pound shop :-)

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
              Thumb Up

              Re: Insight?

              Nice recovery!!

        3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Insight?

          "NASA seems to have given up on the 'try it and see' approach,"

          In a video the other day, His Muskiness said it currently costs about $1B per ton to land on Mars. I'm not sure "try it and see" on the primary power source would be a good idea. On the other hand, NASA do still do "try it and see" with helicopters :-)

        4. the small snake
          Alien

          Re: Insight?

          NASA seems to have given up on the 'try it and see' approach

          You may have heard there is a helicopter on Mars which shows that this is as stupid a statement as sounds it is. There is also a (failed) digging experiment attached to something called Mars InSight I believe: try it and see, sometimes it fails.

          but in something like this the worst that could happen is that it just doesn't work.

          Oh do not be so fucking stupid: the worst that could happen is that something goes wrong with all this added complexity which kills the spacecraft before or shortly after it gets to Mars. Perhaps you have heard of Schiaparelli? Something went wrong with it which killed it. Perhaps you have even heard of Beagle 2? Something went wrong with it which killed it. That something was to do with the deployment of the solar panels, very likely.

          Perhaps like me you watched JWST disappear from top of Ariane and saw the panels deploy and knew that now there was at least a chance it would work: Solar panels are critical to these missions: if their deployment fails then the mission is dead: is a total and immediate loss. If you are flying such a mission you do nothing which even might hinder deployment of panels. Not cleaning them might limit mission life; a fancy cleaning system which breaks deployment kills the mission.

          Perhaps also you have heard of very famous quote:

          Mars Is Hard

          That quote turns out to be true and it means that people who want to land things on Mars are extremely careful to add nothing which might kill the mission. Anything involved with the solar panels might kill the mission.

          And finally you guys with your half-formed ideas are just really funny: do you really think mars people have not thought of these things? Because there is wonderful thing called search engine, and if you search NASA Tech Reports Server you will find ... 921 hits for 'dust solar panels cleaning mars'. Turns out they have thought of many, many things. The people who worked out you could land a thing the size of a car on Mars using a crane turn out to have thought of other things too. Quite a lot of other things.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Insight?

            Wow, how do you ride a horse so high?

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Insight?

              He's right, but a bit harsh. Go easy on him, he's still a newbie :-)

              1. the small snake
                Terminator

                Re: Insight?

                Not he

                1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                  Re: Insight?

                  Sorry. From your username, I assumed you were a bloke who is challenged in the snake department. On reflection, I suppose few blokes would admit to that publicly, let alone announce it in their user name, so clearly I was wrong on a number of levels :-)

            2. the small snake
              Alien

              Re: Insight?

              Because I am annoyed by people who think that they know better than my friends who actually do these things and that insulting them is fine. All while very clearly knowing nothing. If that annoys you then ... good.

              (No I do not do these things, am theorist, do not work for any space people. Just know people who do.)

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Insight?

                So discussing and possibly questioning the decisions of your "friends" in an Internet forum for nerds is somehow insulting them? It's not as if any of us on here have any authority or power to actually sway anything that these "friends" of yours do. We're just hanging out on El Reg and doing our usual bloviating out into the ether about topics we may or may not have a grain of sand's knowledge about.

                If that annoys you, then EXCELLENT!, and welcome to The Register Forums. You might want to get some slightly thicker skin or you'll be in ALL CAPS BY THE END OF THE MONTH!!!111!!!

          2. Dom 3

            Re: Insight?

            "The people who worked out you could land a thing the size of a car on Mars using a crane turn out to have thought of other things too"

            Not just *could*, but that it was actually the *best* way. There's a good video out there with interviews with the engineers involved, where they explain that they were *constantly* asking themselves whether or not the sky crane was both feasible and the best engineering solution.

            Would any of our commentards^W regular posters claim to be able to have come up with, and justified, the sky crane idea?

            Extending solar panel life on Mars is, we think, much simpler than getting there in the first place. But maybe it is not.

            The idle speculation is entertaining; there's still the infinitesimal possibility that someone here has an insight [1] into the problem that has escaped everyone else.

            [1] Pun intended.

      2. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        Unfortunately even at that angle, in the thin martian atmosphere the very fine dust would likely still cling to the panels through static and atomic forces. Likely you could turn the panels upside down regularly and still not get rid of the dust. (Similar to how on earth anything even remotely not vertical gets covered in very fine dust eventually which needs a wipe with a dust cloth to dislodge)

        1. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Insight?

          yeah, mentioned the static electricity in another post. It's a big problem in super dry air.

      3. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        "the panels themselves would then be maybe at 25-30 degrees (relative to the ground) and hence no dust could rest on the surface "

        Dust can settle on a surface at pretty much any angle if it's fine enough, which apparently is the case on Mars. One mitigation could be to coat the panels with some super-smooth surface to make it easier for dust to fall off (like hydrophobic coating on cellphones but for dust), but not sure if such a thing even exists or would impede cell efficiency?

    4. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Insight?

      Of course the issue of dust accumulation was thought about by the development team, and allowed for. That's why it has lasted nearly 1.5 earth years longer than the planned 2 earth year mission duration.

    5. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Insight?

      This is not a problem that an Alien rover sent to Earth would have. It just needs to periodically go to the nearest urban conurbation and stop at a supermarket carpark where a hand car wash team will have all the dust vaccumed off and the panels washed and wiped.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        Would a (insert name of preferred sucky blowy "vacuum" thing here) generate enough air mass flow to remove dust of a solar panel on Mars?

        On Earth a Dyson will remove dust of a Mars bar, and a Vax will remove dirt off a Galaxy bar but I'm not sure they are reasonable analogues.

        1. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Insight?

          well I think Mars is less than 0.1 atmospheres and so vacuum cleaners wouldn't have a lot of differential pressure. compressed air nozzle might be the only 'air method' of cleaning.

    6. UCAP Silver badge

      Re: Insight?

      Its a well known problem for Mars missions; most of the ones that successfully made it to the ground have ultimately failed due to dust collecting on the solar arrays. There have been various ideas bounced around to try to get around the problem, but they have all either risked damaging the arrays (making the problem worse, not better), or involved too much mass and/or power. So now NASA (and all of the other space agencies) simply assume that a mission will ultimately fail either due to dust contamination or when the winter hits the landing site.

    7. lglethal Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Insight?

      InSight had a design life of 2 years. It has so far lasted almost 4 years.

      If your design life is such that the solar panels getting covered is not an issue (which with a 2 year life would not be an issue), why would you add weight/cost/complexity adding some sort of solution?

      If it had been planned for a design life greater than 5 years, absolutely something would have been done to rectify the problem, but that would have added costs, and it was felt that within 2 years, the Projects goals would have been achieved. The fact they've been able to extend it to nearly 4 years means more data, for confirmation, but the goals have already been long achieved.

      Don't assume space engineers are stupid. It just makes you look like an idiot...

      1. Potemkine! Silver badge

        Re: Insight?

        If your design life is such that the solar panels getting covered is not an issue (which with a 2 year life would not be an issue), why would you add weight/cost/complexity adding some sort of solution?

        Because if this solution can lengthen the life span of a device that was very costly, very hard to send there and whose information are very valuable, it can be a good bargain.

        Don't assume space engineers are stupid. It just makes you look like an idiot...

        Don't assume that engineers are always right: you could miss an opportunity to do better. Scepticism, audacity, calling into question are ways to progress.

    8. Richard 12 Silver badge

      The degradation is designed for

      As the article says, right now it's got about 10% of the original power generation, and is still collecting Science.

      There's two ways to deal with dust accumulation:

      1) Clean off the dust.

      2) Make the panels big enough that the original missions will be completed before enough dust collects to become a problem.

      Cleaning is quite complex. When the cleaning system breaks, the mission will end. It's hard to predict how long that would take.

      Dust accumulation is reasonably predictable, so you can design the mission around a known rate of degradation. Do the energy-intensive things (like a mole) first, whole the panels are in tip-top condition, then slowly wind down as each experiment concludes.

      Any cleaning method would cost mass, which would mean a smaller solar panel and thus lower initial energy budget. Thus it's likely to be better to just use an oversized panel and let it degrade.

      1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge
        Coat

        Only two?

        "There's two ways to deal with dust accumulation"

        Has no one thought of a simple dust cover?

        https://tse1.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.Rjj0B8s_L0tkLCdYdyHALwHaHa&pid=Api&f=1

    9. the small snake
      Alien

      Re: Insight?

      So, it just never occurred to anyone on the development team that dust accumulation on the solar panels could be a problem?

      Perhaps since many other spacecraft on Mars have died because their solar panels got too dusty it did occur to them, yes. Because perhaps people who design spacecraft are not stupid people you see, and they have also landed other spacecrafts on Mars and they know how this works.

      And perhaps they worked out that, because the solar panels are very large (2.2m diameter, 2 of them), because moving parts (large moving parts) add mass and complexity and risk, because moving parts cost power if you ever move them, because scraping abrasive dust across the panels is likely to make things worse not better, because in any case the dust is attached to the panels by electrostatic forces as environment is extremely dry (and no, can't just take squeegee bottle and pour water all over pristine environment and spacecraft) so probably would not come off anyway, and and and ... perhaps they worked out that this was not realistically possible.

      So they accepted that of planned mission of 709 sols they might have to live with, maybe, 1400 sols or so (currently at 1235 sols). Perhaps a mission double the planned length might be counted as a success, don't you think?

      What am I missing here?

      What you are missing here is that you are not even smart enough to realise that people who design spacecraft which land on Mars are both extremely smart and extremely experienced at the problems of landing and maintaining robotic spacecraft on Mars.

    10. KarMann Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Insight?

      You're one of those people who really believe NASA just never thought of using a pencil, aren't you?

      https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-write-stuff/

    11. Lars Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Insight?

      Perhaps, you have not used windshield wipers clearing out dust without water and what not.

      A fan could be better but very ineffective due to the very thin air.

      What they could perhaps use is what is used in F1 where they tear off a layer from their helmet visors at a time.

      But I think there perhaps is a limit to how long you get useful data from one device.

    12. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Insight?

      "We use the arm to scoop the dirt transported over the lander, and we slowly let the dirt fall onto the deck of the lander so that the dirt is carried over by the solar winds across the solar panels, cleaning it."

      If only the arm could reach far enough to give the panels a gentle tap...

    13. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Insight?

      Windshield wipers wouldn't help a whole lot...

      * Mars has no water in significant enough quantity to spritz them

      * Static electricity in an environment like that would keep the dust on the panels anyway (water would help in dust removal by undoing the static electricity's effect)

      And so the dust accumulates. Kinda like every top shelf in the house...

      As for convenient dust devils (which appear in certain parts of the desert all of the time in summer out here in Cali-F-You, along I-5 near the truck weighing station for one, little mini tornados) I have a dust devil (vacuum cleaner) that might help, if I could just send it to Mars...

      (Also send a robot maid to operate it - as it hums the theme from 'Space Balls')

      It is possible that an air compressor nozzle could blow dust off of the panels. But that would add a lot of weight to the thing, nozzle, tank, hose, robot arm attachment, extra camera, and the power to run the compressor long enough to pack enough air to blow dust off of the panel which could rapidly become a 'Catch 22' situation if you need more power to pound air into the tanks to clean the panels but can't... quite... get... enough *couch* *choke*

      I do have to wonder if inverting the panel with ultrasonic transducers vibrating the panel might shake dust off effectively. So nightly maintenance maybe flip the panel and buzz it for an hour? NASA? Or a 2 sided panel that flips around and buzzes during the day (so they alternate)? that along with anti-static coatings, anyway.

    14. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Insight?

      Mass is always a big issue. They have to weigh the benefit of adding a way to clear the panels with the chance that whatever they employ causes the whole thing to fail right from the gate or makes the craft too heavy. It might also add too much volume to fit in the space available in the rocket.

      If there were a way to tilt the solar panels and run a small vibrator like is found in a phone, that might be easy. They'd have to make sure the system wasn't prone to jamming leaving the solar cells at an unusable angle. Perhaps a tiny compressor could save up air to blast the cells every so often. Maybe some sort of lightguides so the solar system isn't sat horizontally where dust/fines can build up.

  2. Pantagoon

    Big Fan

    If only there was a little helicopter available to blow the dust off...

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Big Fan

      That little helicopter is roughly 3450 km away. It's highly unlikely it could even GET to the InSight lander and IF it could make it it would be an epic trek across the planet that would likely take years to complete, by which time it would be pointless. The longest flight of Ingenuity to date iirc was about 700 meters during flight 25. At 3450 km distance that would take nearly 5000 flights to complete!

      1. Vulch

        Re: Big Fan

        And said little helicopter is also suffering from dust accumulation on its solar array.

  3. lglethal Silver badge
    Pint

    Good night InSight! Sleep well...

    Best project I ever had the pleasure to work on! Beers for the whole team...

    1. MiguelC Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Best project I ever had the pleasure to work on!

      Can't you share some more? I'm sure everyone would very much enjoy inside information accounts about it!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Best project I ever had the pleasure to work on!

        Check his posting history (click the user name). He's posted lost of insights :-)

  4. Atomic Duetto

    F1 technology

    They just need a few layers of F1 helmet pull offs.

    Whip one off every two years, voila .. clean surface

    (Thin plastic film waste could be collected)

    I’ve no doubt 3m or Redbull would sponsor (gives you clean wings)

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: F1 technology

      The problem with those kinds of tear-offs in my experience is that they are static as all hell. Might well make the problem worse, not better. Plus, with the limited mass budget, is the added mass of a system for those tear-offs actually worth the hassle. See the post above by lglethal, InSight lander has exceeded it's design life by nearly 2 years and has achieved the vast majority of it's science goals. What it hasn't achieved is because of unforeseen circumstances (like the mole not working) Every bit of data gathered now is really nice to have and helps to improve data accuracy since continuing operation is comparatively cheap. But there's only so much they can do with the current hardware.

      This lander dying now is a little sad, but we got what we needed from it. It's time for it to rest.

  5. Tubz

    You would think putting a roller either end with a very thin plastic belt between them protecting the panels and a brush on the under side to dislodge material would be hard for NASA to design? They got Apollo 13 back on a few amp hours in the batteries, plastic bags, a hose, a sock and duct tape for co2 scrubbers?

  6. Dr. G. Freeman

    We need to send somebody up there with a water bottle and a squeegee.

    Or a big feather duster.

    Do all the martian probes, get the research really going.

  7. Dizzy Dwarf

    Just paint the incarnation for dust-devils on the side

    Ask the local djinni for a helping hand.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Answer...

    The facts before us:

    1. The solar panels on this Mars lander need cleaning.

    2. Feather dusters only cost a couple quid down at the pound shop.

    3. Human journeys to Mars are frequently regarded as being one-way trips.

    4. Elon Musk really, really wants to go to Mars, and has rocketships and deep enough pockets to pay for the gas.

    I'm beginning to get a glimmer of an idea...

  9. Camilla Smythe

    Sound and Grooves.

    Piezo transducers are robust and lightweight. A square solar panel will have longitudinal resonances allowing for efficient driving. Place grooves in the panel at the anti-nodes. Drive the edge(s) of the panel at the appropriate resonance frequency. Dust collects in the grooves leaving the active area free from contamination.

  10. Spherical Cow
    Joke

    It's as clear as mud

    So many commentards suggesting brushes, fans, removable films etc. You are all missing the most obvious solution: we simply need to replace the existing opaque Martian dust with transparent dust. Problem solved! I can't believe the so-called "experts" haven't thought of this yet.

    ;-)

  11. darklord

    Cant they they just fold up the panels let it fall off and fold them back to position. Major and very expensive F@*K up!!!!!!!!! not installing cleanable panels. Surely the boffins didnt for see this NOT!!!!!!!! every one else on this planet saw it coming

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