back to article InSight Mars lander has only 'few weeks' of power left

The Mars InSight lander is preparing to drift off to an eternal slumber beneath a blanket of solar-panel-obscuring Martian dust, as its power is set to run out within the next few weeks.  NASA announced the stationary Martian science lab's unfortunate end on Tuesday, saying dust storms that have gradually covered the craft's …

  1. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

    Use inclined solar panels

    If the solar panels were inclined at 60 degrees to the horizontal then the dust would fall off and the solar panels could work for many years. This would require larger panels with a weight penalty but the longer duration would make that worthwhile.

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      Or adjustable angle - tilt to vertical to drop the dust off, then back to horizontal for optimum collection. Could even shake them while vertical.

      Additional complexity? Maybe. But would it really be much more than the deployment mechanism?

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Use inclined solar panels

        Static says no.

        Even here on Earth I sometimes have issues with static collecting atmospheric dust on the solar panels. No amount of tipping or vibrating will shift it. I use a hose to rinse off the dust when necessary (and sometimes a sponge on a stick for bird poop ... hardly a problem on Mars).

        1. Andy Non
          Alien

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          What's needed is for a Martian to pop out with a bucket and sponge, give it a quick rub down and demand 5 Martian dollars.

          1. DJO Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            Which is why we need manned missions to Mars, having somebody up there with a broom and a chamois leather to clean the solar panels would be very useful, they could even grow some spuds if they're not too busy.

          2. chivo243 Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            What's needed is for a Martian to pop out with a bucket and sponge, give it a quick rub down and demand 5 Martian dollars.

            Believe me, those martian$5 window cleans aren't worth it... perhaps only to get them to leave you alone.

          3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            "What's needed is for a Martian to pop out with a bucket and sponge, give it a quick rub down and demand 5 Martian dollars."

            It'd need to be stopped at traffic lights for that to happen. Have we seen traffic lights in any of the photos sent back yet? Click all squares which contain traffic signals[1].

            If you see some traffic lights, then we have proof of life and can stop sending probes anyway.

            [1] El Reg Americaizatio and that's what Google calls them too when they ask me[2]

            [2] FFS, You'd think Google would know what they looked like by now, what with indexing most of the WWW!!!

        2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          Could solar panels have a coating that could be electrostatically charged & then reversed, to charge and then repel the dust?

          1. imanidiot Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            Working with HV equipment in a vacuum that needs to be super clean I can say that the experiments have been done and have been less than successful. Once particles like that stick it's REALLY hard to persuade them to leave again. Your repelling charge might just shake them loose a little bit, only for them to then get attracted back to your surface at even higher charge levels

            1. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit
              Pint

              Re: Use inclined solar panels

              Thank you for this. My inner arm chair commentard engineer also jumped straight to 'turn them over & shake' or 'something clever involving electrostatic'. Real world me knows far brighter minds will have thought of anything a commentard can come up with decades ago. Still, it's good to read the confirmation.

              Cheers ->

              1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
                Thumb Up

                Re: Use inclined solar panels

                Agreed.

        3. Evil Auditor Silver badge

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          I use a hose to rinse off the dust...

          And this is exactly why they are so eager to find water on Mars.

        4. wolfetone Silver badge

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          Negatively charge the panels, stick a motorised brush on the panel, give it a sweep every now and then?

          1. Muscleguy Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            You just reinvented the window wiper, congratulations.

            1. wolfetone Silver badge

              Re: Use inclined solar panels

              Just call me Sir John Window-Cleaner.

        5. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. DJO Silver badge

        Re: Use inclined solar panels

        A shaking or wobbling panel will need a flexible connector. Flexible connectors do not fare well in sub-zero conditions.

        Wouldn't work anyway, the dust is highly charged and a couple of orders of magnitude finer than Earth dust - Consider Johnson's Baby Powder, pretty finely ground - Mars dust is much finer and will ingress into any flexible joints.

    2. pluraquanta

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      Stick a Dualsense controller under it and shake the dust off.

    3. oknop

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      How about some kind of windshield wiper with a light brush on it?

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Use inclined solar panels

        Complicated, heavy, can damage the panels and probably not nearly as effective as you'd think (try brushing dust off of a statically charged balloon, you'll probably just end up adding more).

        1. DJO Silver badge

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          The only system I could think of that might work is to have a transparent belt running over and under the panel with all the cleaning bits underneath but I doubt if the added complexity would be worth it. Also in the highly probable event of crud getting between the panel and the belt, everything would get scratched up a treat.

          1. David Hicklin Bronze badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            > transparent belt

            For a moment I though you were going to suggest one of the tear of strips that F1 drivers user on their visors,,,

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          "Complicated, heavy, can damage the panels and probably not nearly as effective as you'd think (try brushing dust off of a statically charged balloon, you'll probably just end up adding more)."

          I would have suggested earthing it, but then I thought about the long earthing wire that would be needed. It'd have to be quite stretchy too to cope with the changing orbital positions.

    4. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      You could have these upside-down and dust would still cling to them.

    5. Christoph

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      A simple robot arm with an air blower on the end. Only needs a swivel mounting to swing round and a single elbow to wipe up and down, so should be easy compared to the arms already out there.

      1. Hairy Spod

        Re: Use inclined solar panels

        ..or a simple windscreen wiper type arrangement.

        or a slight incline and a vibration function maybe?

      2. Oh Matron!

        Re: Use inclined solar panels

        erm... slight problem with that is the lack of, erm, air...

        The Martian atmospheric pressure is 0.095 psi

        Earth's sea level atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi

        You'd need a LOT of air

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: Use inclined solar panels

          You've got months to compress some atmosphere into storage - only need to puff off at high pressure once a (martian) year.

          So a system that puffs every three weeks or so could do one segment each time.

          Obviously massive complexity and weight penalty, and there are almost certainly issues which are more significant than the lack of atmosphere.

          1. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: Use inclined solar panels

            You need a terrific filter for that atmosphere you're collecting or you'll just blowing more dust over the panels when you try to "clean" them. It would probably require some very tiny pores, which would become gummed up with Martian dust and once the filter is clogged and you can't collect more air your blower can't operate and you're back to square one.

            Plus the system that does this (pump, storage vessel, filter, blower motor, etc.) all add launch weight and deducts from your ability to use that weight budget for science. An RTG makes more sense than solar panels for missions you hope to last for many years, but solar panels are fine if you're just looking for a couple years of mission life.

            1. Cuddles Silver badge

              Re: Use inclined solar panels

              "You need a terrific filter for that atmosphere you're collecting or you'll just blowing more dust over the panels when you try to "clean" them. It would probably require some very tiny pores, which would become gummed up with Martian dust and once the filter is clogged and you can't collect more air your blower can't operate and you're back to square one."

              OK, but what if we have a second blower to blow the dust off the filters of the first one?

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Use inclined solar panels

                Blowers all the way down?

                Imagine the Paris icon -------------------->

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Use inclined solar panels

              So yeah, a lot of the hate on clearing dusty panels on mars seems to be an assumption that it need to get them back to clean, as opposed to slowing the accumulation or getting it back to a more useful yield. If you over provision a bit, and use a smaller RTG if appropriate, you can address some of this, and the panels aren't made from Kleenex. They need to stand up to a martian wind storm, they can handle the occasional wipe down, and the engineers here on the ground can balance the risks. They literally made a solar powered drone work, this isn't impossible.

              That said if a bunch of you are grouchy about the limits on using RTGs on space gear, I hear you. I'd rather not have them burning up in the atmosphere on a regular basis, so keeping them out of disposable LEO stuff makes sense, but it shouldn't take an act of congress to get them for literal extraterrestrial missions.

            3. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: Use inclined solar panels

              Would you though?

              That dust would presumably settle once in the compressed air container, so you "just" need to be able to compress whilst handling some dust, and then be able to empty the dust out after use. Or, just only run the compressor when there isn't a dust storm?

              Anyway - the weight/complexity/cost is clearly not in favour, since I doubt that the good folks designing these craft haven't thought about the possibility.

    6. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Use inclined solar panels

      "Larger" doesn't quite cut it. Woth 44% less light in the first place, having the panels in an optimum position is essential.

  2. jake Silver badge

    Different ending?

    "A visit to solar-powered InSight, on the other hand, would be a memorial trip to talk about what could have gone differently if only the lander was equipped with a more reliable power source."

    A visit to solar-powered InSight, on the other hand, could be a maintenance trip, armed with a can of compressed air and a datavac.

    1. Joe W Silver badge

      Re: Different ending?

      If Musk gets to Mars he will make a lot of wind there... (could help, eh?)

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Different ending?

        We don't need Musk; just a feather duster. Or a nice rain shower...

        1. Korev Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Different ending?

          Yeah, NASA's mistake was sending the lander to Mars and not Britain...

          1. TimMaher Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: Britain

            It weighs too much.

          2. AndrueC Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: Different ending?

            And as a born and bred Briton I feel obliged to quip that there might be more chance of finding intelligent life on Mars.

          3. Muscleguy Silver badge

            Re: Different ending?

            Western Britain. I’m in Dundee, the sunniest city in Scotland. We’re in a rain shadow, the hills make rain clouds from the West slide north of us.

        2. Jedit Silver badge
          Joke

          "We don't need Musk; just a feather duster."

          Please refrain from posting excerpts from Grimes's divorce filing on El Reg. They're private.

  3. Swordfish1

    Get the helicopter from the other rover to fly above it make a vortex top clear the dust. Anyway, it should have been equipped with some sort of Martian air blower.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Slight problem there, that helicopter is about 1/3 of the way around the planet. It'd take several thousand of the longest flights it's made so far to even get there. (If it could. Likely it would do it's best impression of an upturned turtle long before that)

      I did the math in an earlier thread about the InSight Lander, copied here for your reading pleasure: "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. ravenviz Silver badge

        Better get a jog on then!

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        And that helicopter is also solar powered and the solar cells are ABOVE the rotors, so it has exactly the same issue with dust! Maybe not quite as bad as some dust will be removed when flying through the air.

  4. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
    Holmes

    As a thought....

    Why not have a clear roll of film over the panel, when dusty collection rolls can spool the surface and attempt (or just leave the dust rolled up) to extend the life of the panels. On the uptake spool some form of wipers could remove dust along with say either a vacuum or blower to remove the caught dust.

    Yes, I will admit there's a weight cost to say having these rolls of film but it at least would extend the life by a reasonable amount.

    1. BPontius

      Re: As a thought....

      The high concentration of chlorine in the Mars dust would react with the plastic blocking the solar panels just like the dust.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As a thought....

      Does a suitable plastic exist? A quick demonstration with a roll of clingfilm shows a high level of static on the surfaces when it's unpeeled. Immediately attracting dust to the clean surfaces of such a roll of film rather defeats the point of it.

    3. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: As a thought....

      Dust and grit would get under the film and scratch the panels every time the roll spools. But chances are longevity would still be increased compared to doing nothing, and it's less of a weight penalty than a compressor tank able to store enough "air" to try blowing the dust away (even if they made it of carbon fibre it'd still need to be pretty big to hold enough air for a big enough blast to overcome dust static charge).

  5. bronskimac

    Brushes?

    How the hell did they not build in a mechanism to clear the dust off the panels? Dusty planet with strong winds, yer gonna get dust on your photovoltaics. A simple brush with a windscreen wiper motor would have done it. Yes, it would add weight and cost more, but a powerless lander is worth as much as a brick.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Brushes?

      The lander lasted more than long enough to fulfill the vast majority of it's goals (only experiment that didn't work was the "mole", which failed due to unforeseen soil conditions). It was designed to last 2 years and has made it to just about 4 years, that's quite the achievement in itself. Adding all that weight for clearing solar panels might have made it last longer, but then it wouldn't have been capable of carrying all the science equipment that it did. So what is the point of adding all that extra weight then? What would you choose, lots and lots of data from several experiments for a bit over 2 years (with more limited experiment data continuing to nearly 4 years) or limited data from a limited set of experiments for 6 or MAYBE 8 years (by that time the batteries will probably start failing)?

      It's a little sad we lose the lander, but it's done it's job. It's like crying over the perfectly good tunnel boring machines that were buried under the Channel when the Channel tunnel was built. They have done their job, now it's time for them to rest.

      1. Glen 1
        Unhappy

        Re: Brushes?

        "Will we see France today?"

        "Any day now Chuggy, any day now."

        "Is Calais as beautiful as they say?"

        "Oh the supermarkets go on for miles Chuggy, you'll love it"

        Youtube clip

    2. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Brushes?

      ...planet with strong winds...

      You watched the film "The Martian" didn't you?

      While most of the film is reasonably accurate the dust storm at the beginning is utterly ridiculous. Yes the winds can be quite fast but due to the vanishingly thin atmosphere the wind pressure is almost zero - you could stand in a 100 mph wind on Mars and you would barely feel it.

    3. sundog
      Coat

      Re: Brushes?

      Damn fairy farts sprinkling turd dust on our landers...

  6. Arthur the cat Silver badge
    Trollface

    Radiothermal power

    the system is safe enough to not be a health hazard "unless broken into very fine pieces or vaporized and then inhaled or swallowed."

    Will nobody think of the (Martian) children?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Radiothermal power

      It does mean your launch vehicle needs to tick the box, don't explode on launch over Florida [ ]

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: Radiothermal power

        Casing of such things is built to withstand RUDs and the resulting impact with the ground.

  7. Death Boffin
    Mushroom

    Space modulation

    5 kg of plutonium eh? I wonder if Marvin could use that in his Space Modulator?

    "Where's the KABOOM? There should have been an Earth shattering KABOOM."

    1. Phones Sheridan Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Re: Space modulation

      No boom today, boom tomorrow!

      https://youtu.be/CnR3Tyrg_10

  8. Crypto Monad Silver badge

    "Additionally, the Sun's strength on Mars is only about 44 percent as strong as it is on Earth, meaning there's a lot less solar energy getting to panels even when they're clean."

    However there are practically no clouds, and on a cloudy day on Earth you'll be lucky to get 10-20% of peak output. So at least something works in their favour.

  9. steamnut

    Borrow some f1 tech?

    The on-car cameras used by F1 cars have a film which is routinely moved to create a clear lens. Would that work?

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Borrow some f1 tech?

      They cover a lens under 20mm in diameter for a race lasting about 2 hours.

      The solar cells are over a metre across and you'd want enough for at least 4 years.

      Not really comparable specifications.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Borrow some f1 tech?

        It's also not travelling at 200+MPH and hitting flying insects etc either, but I still agree with your point :-)

  10. Michael Habel
    Boffin

    A lesson for us all especially theganja-greenie types that like bang on about Wind, and Solar. When what is needed is cheap, clean beautiful Nuclear energy.

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Yes, yes, a million times yes!

  11. TaabuTheCat

    If it dies...

    Will it come back to life on its own if the panels get a good wind storm to clear them and they start generating power again?

    1. David Hicklin Bronze badge

      Re: If it dies...

      > come back to life

      Doubtful as they also keep heaters running to stop it being damaged by low temperatures.

  12. Dom 3

    Skycrane anybody?

    The sort of brains that can come up with the Mars Skycrane *and* convince management that this really is the best way to do it, have considered (and dismissed) all of the above and then some more.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just need a manned mission every couple of years to go clean the dust off the panels. Then the probes can continue to gather science data so that we don't need to send a manned mission.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      I vaguely remember an SF story about a Mars mission. The budget was stripped back such that it would only be given if they went with a cheaper unmanned robotic mission. It failed on landing, something simple. So budget was granted to send another probe to "fix" the first one. Pulling a stuck folding panel or something IIRC. That failed, so budget was added for a 3rd one. That failed and the only remaining option was to send a fourth one, but since the budget was for unmanned missions only, the bloke inside it was not, under any circumstances to step out of the vehicle onto the Martian surface. He was only to reach out and flip the panel, then leave. Total cost was at least double the cost of the original planned manned mission :-)

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