We love that part of Apollo 13 where NASA engineers are to mount a square carbon dioxide filter in a round hole. We love pretty much every scene of Marching where Mark Watney chops up all the hardware he can grab to survive on an enemy planet. What we love even more is watching the actual NASA engineers try a hack and order 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 Mars’ internal geology, has been exposed to dust buildup on solar panels. This dust only adds to the expected power loss that occurs when the red planet approaches the aphelion – the maximum distance from the sun in its orbit. Attempts to shake the panels clean by pulsing their installation motors failed. Other solar-powered missions have experienced a cleansing effect from the Martian winds; despite having seen plenty of gusts of wind, however, InSight has not seen any significant improvement.
Conversely, the operators instructed the lander to slowly seep more dust and sand from its shovel near (not on top of) one of the solar panels. As the wind blew, larger particles were carried by the breeze over the panels and sprang out of the surface, carrying away some accumulated dust. Although it may sound like a small effect, the experiment resulted in approx. 30 extra watt hours per. Sun. Margins are still thin and scientific instruments still need to be disabled to save power. But this boost alone was enough to delay the downturn for a few weeks.
There are so many exciting missions operating on Mars right now. However, it is also fun to look back on some of the earliest probes. And we’re always amazed at the resources NASA makes available to us to have some DIY fun.