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NASA Mars lander goes into safe mode during large dust storm

The solar-powered lander is starving for some more sunlight.

NASA's Mars InSight lander snapped a selfie in early 2019. It had collected a thin coast of dust by this point.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Every robotic explorer that lands on Mars has to contend with the planet's famously dusty conditions. NASA's InSight lander, which took up residence on the red planet in 2018, is hunkering down due to a large, regional dust storm. 

InSight went into safe mode -- a mode designed to protect the lander -- on Jan. 7 after a dust storm reduced sunlight to the solar-powered machine. So far, InSight remains stable. "The mission's team reestablished contact with InSight Jan. 10, finding that its power was holding steady and, while low, was unlikely to be draining the lander's batteries," NASA JPL said in a statement on Tuesday.

NASA has experience with Martian dust storms impacting its missions, notably when a global dust storm in 2018 ended the Opportunity rover's journey. InSight has already faced strains due to dust covering its solar panels. The lander team came up with a clever way to clear some of the dust off, which has allowed InSight to continue its science work.

The current dust storm could have a lasting impact on InSight's power supply if it deposits more particles on the panels. If NASA gets lucky, the storm might possibly help the lander's situation. "The whirlwinds and gusts of dust storms have helped to clear solar panels over time, as with the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions," said NASA. "While InSight's weather sensors have detected many passing whirlwinds, none have cleared any dust."

Last year, NASA extrended the InSight mission to the end of 2022. The lander is now waiting out the dust storm by suspending science work and maintaining just its essential functions. According to NASA JPL, the storm seems to be waning and the team hopes to bring the lander out of safe mode next week.

InSight has delivered valuable insights into Marsquakes and what's going on beneath the planet's surface. NASA hopes it will weather the storm and come out ready to dive back into its science duties.