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Nasa fears for its Insight Mars rover over dust covering its solar panels

Image credit: nasa

The Insight lander, a rover designed to study the deep interior of Mars by monitoring seismic activity, is losing power and is going into emergency hibernation, a report from Insider has claimed.

The rover’s battery is powered by harnessing the Sun's energy through its solar panels, but these are thought to be covered in Mars dust, which is hampering how much energy they can absorb.

In February, its solar panels were reportedly producing just 27 per cent of their expected energy capacity.

While most Rovers are powered with solar panels that are at risk of dust coverage, winds raging over Mars's surface help to clear much of the build-up. Unfortunately, in this case, the winds do not seem to be strong enough to clear the residue.

In 2018, Nasa’s Opportunity rover lost contact with the Earth after it was caught in a gigantic dust storm that covered at least a quarter of the surface of Mars. Nasa eventually stopped trying to communicate with it, although it did successfully operate for 14 years.

Speaking to Insider, Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, said: “We would be hopeful that we’d be able to bring it back to life, especially if it’s not asleep or dead for a long period of time. But that would be a dicey situation.”

A portion of the rover’s energy is used just to keep its electronic components warm enough that they are not damaged by Mars’s cold nights, which can see temperatures drop as low as -75°C.

It has currently stopped conducting scientific experiments and has shut down its instruments in order to preserve its power for this purpose.

However, even if Insight’s batteries completely die, it can still be used as a “zombie” spacecraft to some degree, where it can still function when directly powered by the Sun.

“The problem with that scenario is that in the meantime, the spacecraft is very, very cold. And this is happening during the coldest part of the year for the spacecraft,” Banerdt said. “A lot of the electronics is pretty delicate. And it’s, unfortunately, pretty likely that something would be damaged by the cold.”

He added: “Right now, our predictions, our projections are that we should be able to make it through the lowest-power point and come out the other side.”

Insight has already made some important scientific discoveries and it has been able to detect seismic activity under the surface of Mars.

In January, however, Nasa ended attempts to dig down into the soil on Mars after concluding that it had not been able to gain the friction it needed to do so.

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