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How the InSight spacecraft has managed to clean its solar panels on Mars

The InSight space probe landed on Mars in 2018. Since then, it has been working. However, it has also been covered in dust, as it happens to any object that has been on Mars long enough. Sometimes a strong enough wind you can pluck up the dust and take it with you. But the circumstances must be right.

In its orbital path around the Sun, Mars is approaching aphelion, its furthest point from the Sun. This means that less sunlight is reaching the InSight’s solar panels, reducing their energy output. This was already planned. But an excessive accumulation of dust can further reduce the power supply for the ship, creating many troublesome situations.

The InSight team has been devising ways to remove dust from their solar panels for almost a year. For example, they tried to use the deployment motors of solar panels (last used when InSight opened its solar panels after landing) to generate vibrations that would dislodge the dust, but were unsuccessful.

More recently, several members of the science team devised a somewhat paradoxical strategy: grabbing sand with the arm of the InSight and dropping it close to (though not directly on top of) the panels. Matt Golombek, a member of the InSight science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, concluded that it might be possible to kick dust off by impacting grains of sand larger than those of dust. The sand grains, pushed by the wind, would carry dust particles out of the ship.

To test the technique, the team used the aforementioned InSight robotic arm to knock sand down next to the solar panels on May 22, 2021, specifically during Martian noon, the windiest time of the day. The actions of the arm and the sand provided, in combination with the winds that blew towards the northwest at a maximum of 6 meters per second, achieved that the sand dragged dust with it when sliding across the surface to be cleaned, which was clearly perceived by coinciding with an immediate increase in the total electrical power of the ship.

“We weren’t sure it was going to work,” says Golombek. “But we’re delighted it did.”

To remove some dust from one of its solar panels, the InSight dropped sand in a suitable position for the wind to blow against the panel and it would carry dust particles out of the vehicle, pushed by the wind. The trick paid off, and the ship now has a greater power supply than it had lately. (Photo: NASA JPL / Caltech)

The increase in electrical power should make it possible to delay the disconnection of scientific instruments a little, saving precious time to collect more scientific data. In any case, everything indicates that the temporary disconnection of instruments will have to be done sooner or later to guarantee that the heating, computer and other vital systems of the spacecraft that, among other things, keep scientific instruments in good condition, have Enough electrical power to be able to do its job during the harshest phase of the Martian winter. (Source: NCYT from Amazings)

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