Sand Hack Boosts Power On InSight Mars Lander

We love that part in Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers have to fit a square carbon dioxide filter in a round hole. We love basically every scene of The Martian where Mark Watney hacks together any piece of hardware he can get his hands on to survive on a hostile planet. What we love even more is watching actual NASA engineers trying out a hack and ordering the InSight lander to scoop sand on itself to increase the power from its solar panels.

InSight, which recently had its two-year mission to study the interior geology of Mars extended, has been suffering from a buildup of dust on its solar panels. This dust is only adding on to the expected power loss which occurs as the red planet approaches aphelion — the maximum distance from the Sun in its orbit. Attempts to shake the panels clear by pulsing their deployment motors were unsuccessful. Other solar-powered missions have experienced a cleaning effect from the Martian winds; however, despite seeing plenty of gusts, InSight has not seen any significant improvement.

Counterintuitively, operators instructed the lander to slowly trickle more dust and sand from its scoop close to (not on top of) one of the solar panels. As the wind blew, larger particles were carried by the breeze across the panels and bounced off the surface, carrying away some accumulated dust. While that may sound like a minuscule effect, the experiment resulted in about 30 extra watt-hours per Sol. Margins are still thin, and science instruments will still need to be disabled to conserve power. But this boost alone was enough to delay the powerdown for a few weeks.

There are so many exciting missions operating on Mars right now. Though, it’s also fun to take a look back at some of the earliest probes. And we’re always amazed at the resources NASA makes available for us to have some DIY fun.

78 thoughts on “Sand Hack Boosts Power On InSight Mars Lander

    1. Alice Lalita Heald said: “Where are the micro cleaning robots they promised?”

      There’s already a multipurpose robotic arm on the thing, yet the bubble-heads at NASA still couldn’t figure out how to equip it with a brush of some sort. Now they’re screwed.

    1. I’m sure that if there was a low mass solution to the dust problem that mars landers would have implemented it by now. Also, designed mission length is a factor and every lander/rover that has dust issues is always well beyond that. Even the upward pointing sky camera on the Perseverance rover has no way to remove dust, so there must be some overriding mass/benefit issue involved here. These people aren’t dumb.

      1. >These people aren’t dumb.

        Every time they send a new rover out there, the mission plan is to operate for a few months, and then it goes extended for years. If they put so much as a brush on it, the management asks “Why?”. That’s because the management is already applying for the funding of the next rover, with the excuse that this one is not going to operate for very long so they’ll need a new one soon.

        All the questions about “Why didn’t they put X on it?” are answered by, “Because they’re holding it back for the next rover.”

      1. Temperature and air pressure are irrelevant if the ultrasonic waves are passing through the panels themselves to shake the dust off. Might damage them if they’re too thin though.

    1. I imagine that intake for the duct would have to have filters so the dust does not shorten the life of the fan. The air might also be to thin for this to work reliably. Perhaps an air compressor would be better, but the air still needs to be filtered so it does not clog.

      A brush at the end of the arm might be better for cleaning, but that might also pose some challenges that I’m missing.

        1. Without water, solar panels are actually very resistant to scratches.

          The only usual reason to keep solar panels under a layer of protective glass is to prevent water ingress.

    2. It does seem like that would be useful in a number of circumstances not just cleaning solar panels. It could also blow dust off other sensors or tools, or interesting rocks, …

      1. Airflow from the fan could also be used to vacuum up samples. Wouldn’t need to suck the stuff through the fan, blow it through jets at the nozzle, pointed into the pipe. The high speed movement of the gas up the pipe entrains air at the nozzle and draws it in.

    1. I know they try to save on weight and they’d have to design a brush strip that would last potentially a decade, but I still don’t know why they’ve not implemented something like that.
      Perhaps height adjustable and rotating, one side with a brush, one side with a metal bar. Then they could clear larger particles before cleaning to reduce scratches. They could even diamond or ruby coat their panels for longevity’s sake.

      Complexity breads failure.

      Maybe just add a tilting mechanism and a couple of vibration motor to the panels. Ultra simple, long lasting, power and processing efficient. Although they would need to work out the long term failure mode of the vibration on pretty much everything it was attached to.

      1. And then they’d need to find someone who could figure out how to change the damn thing.
        I am not looking forward to changing my wiper blades. Always some new piece in the box the you do NOT use.

  1. We can put a vehicle on Mars but we don’t know how to dust it off xD Cutting edge NASA..
    Can you imagine what would happen to humans living on Mars? Forgot to pack toothbrush for the next 3years :D

      1. Opps wrong lander…. but designed the same way. Phoenix quit working because of the CO2 snow loads on the panels supposedly caused them to break or bend out of position. It didn’t have an ice scraper….

  2. maybe pull that self hammering mole back up and put it on the panel struts, have it do a hammer at peak wind to try and vibrate some of the sand loose, oh wait that failed also because the martian environment just wasn’t cooperative.

    1. The atmosphere on Mars is thin but there’s no reason it couldn’t be filtered and compressed. A Dyson cyclone like trap for the dust prefiltering would save a lot of filter cleaning cycles. It would be trivial to automate emptying a dust box then using some of the compressed air in reverse to clean it’s own filters off. I’d say it’s probably too complex mechanically and no doubt too heavy.
      Even if they didn’t store compressed air and just used a hairdryer like fan with a nozzle, it might ingest something and get jammed. It could have a filter on the back and the fan could be reversible to clear it. Perhaps even a simple removable solid cover and a wider mesh on the front. No doubt a solid cover for the back might be preferable too. But where do you stop.
      You could have a plastic cover for the pannels and hunker down in a storm. But then again it might be better to keep moving so as not to get buried. It’s pretty tricky designing anything you know you can’t just go and fix in six months.

      Maybe, now NASA can fly on Mars, we just need robotic engineering robots on Mars that can do servicing work and the odd spot clean.

  3. I wonder how much of the problem is electrostatic attraction of the small Martian fines to the panels. That may be harder to overcome than “dirt” stuck there by gravity. Time to “reverse the shield polarity” ? :)

    1. Interesting option, to use electrostatics.
      Not great for anything high density, but still, fine dust can reduce efficiency a substantial amount.
      Isolation for the other electronics might be an issue to consider.
      I’m also wondering about magnetism as a possible solution, Mars is notorious for having a relatively high iron content in it’s rocks. A sweeper under the panel, a bit like a fish tank cleaning bar might be an interesting solution, if the rocks aren’t too magnetic.

      1. ahh you beat me to it.

        maybe a interval static pulse acting like a dust force field. wouldn’t be good at removing larger particles but, may inhibit some ending up there in the first place. while still removing finer particles from accumulating into larger ones. Power consumption could be low and only needing discharge capacitors and pump circuits. much like our joule thief’s, but way nasa-ishly designed of course. . Other than that just some kind of transparent, conductive coating on the solar panels.

        My 1.5 cents

  4. So, the comments about high-speed fans or compressors – look at the line that they managed to get only 30wh extra out of the panels with this technique. The power generation capabilities were extremely limited already before the dust settled on the panels. That’s why this low-impact cleaning hack was required, because it is mostly passive.

  5. a simple piece of fine rope attached to the side of the arm, combined with some slightly raised ‘guides’ along the panel. The arm can then drop to the guides and run along them so it runs parallel with the panels at a pre-set height, for the ‘soft’ rope to gently rub off the panels. Minimal extra weight and a great ‘last resort’ effort to brush stuff off. Materials science isn’t my thing but with -120 degree temps at the poles, and -60 possible elsewhere, combined with thin atmsophere, and weight limits, compressors, cloths and blowers are definitley OUT

  6. It’s the charged dust particles that stick the worst (I’m sure there’s plenty of us who can recall some experience with) and are least likely to simply be blown off. Which is easy why it’s even an easy google for find papers that NASA have released on electrodynamic dust shields with the prototypes restoring up to 90% efficiency for lunar dust and conditions, so I’m curious what trade-off made it unsuitable for applying it here.

      1. Is there some deadline I’m missing? As far as I know, they’re just sitting there most of the time anyway. Program in a flight plan with stops to recharge and just send it on its way. Eventually it will get there.

        1. A man of patience, eh? :-) Unfortunately with Ingenuity’s maximum flight distance of ~100 meters and a recharge time of one Martian day, “eventually” is over 100 Earth years.

        2. Yes, there is a deadline.

          Once the power dips down to the point it can’t run the heaters the whole craft dips down to local mars temperature. The electronics that run the device rarely survive being that cold.

  7. You’d think a small brush on the end of the arm would be good for cleaning debris from rock samples before analysing and could act as a panel duster too. Or one of those rubber bulb blowers the is used for cleaning electronics. Or even a small vacuum cleaner would work too. It could capture the dust for later analysis.

  8. I love all the suggestions of blowing the dust off with air.

    On a planet with an atmosphere that is less than 1% the pressure of the one we are all used to.

    Yes, I know, work can still be done against such a thin atmosphere. Ingenuity manages to push against it hard enough to fly and martian winds have carved martian rocks over the eons.

    But can they fit something to push that thin air hard enough to get the dust off give the expense of shipping additional mass and the energy it would take to run it? I’m guessing the fact they haven’t tried answers the question.

    I still don’t get why they haven’t started putting wipers on the panels though. Somebody mentioned not being there to change the worn out wipers but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not like they would run them constantly. Even if they only got to use the wiper once that would be one opportunity to start back at day 0 with a newly cleaned panel. Save it until you really need it. Wouldn’t that be a a big deal? And I’m sure they could get more than one use out of it.

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