NASA's Mars InSight trips into safe mode and ESA's Sentinel-1B gives scientists the silent treatment

Space is hard

While there were whoops and cheers for the James Webb Space Telescope, other missions on Mars and in orbit around the Earth have fared less well in recent weeks.

First is NASA's InSight lander, which arrived on Mars in 2018 and, despite the failure of its Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package probe to dig into the surface of the Red Planet, has otherwise been a success and far surpassed the originally planned mission duration.

However, all good things will eventually come to an end, and last week the lander dropped into safe mode as a dust storm stopped sunlight reaching its solar panels.

Everything but the most essential functions were automatically shut down as the probe conserved power.

The team made contact with the lander this week and confirmed that power, although low, was holding steady. The hope is that the situation will improve over the coming days and permit an exit from safe mode next week.

The mission itself was extended until the end of this year, but keeping things going on the surface will prove increasingly difficult as dust accumulates.

Although the probe has identified nearby whirlwinds and gusts that kept the solar panels of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers relatively clear, none have removed any dust from InSight. The lander's robotic scoop was used to remove dust from one panel, but the decrease in energy has made even that activity difficult.

While the cause of InSight's difficulties are all too familiar to engineers, the troubles afflicting the Copernicus Sentinel-1B, which started on 23 December, are continuing to bedevil the Earth observation spacecraft.

At time of writing, efforts to resurrect the spacecraft have proven unsuccessful, frustrating scientists that depend on data from it. The issue appears related to "a unit of the power system", and the first attempt at fixing it has failed. Further activities to identify the root cause of the problems (and find a solution) are planned this week.

Sentinel-1B was launched in 2016 and, with the imaginatively named Sentinel-1A launched earlier, is the first of ESA's Copernicus Earth observation satellite programme. The duo provide all-weather radar imaging. At launch, the spacecraft was expected to transmit data for "at least seven years" and had fuel on board for 12 years. ®

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