I see on the interwebs that the lander Insight is about to land on Mars and the NASA PR describes the solar panels as producing 600-700W now and 200-300W when covered in dust.

Is there any reason why some sort of cleaning apparatus can't be installed on the lander to keep the dust off the solar panels? Or, why was it decided not to install some sort of apparatus to keep the panels clean?

I like the mental image of a robot arm with a feather duster but there are probably more practical solutions.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good question, and it's puzzled me as well. It seems ESA's current thinking is to hope for the best, take what comes, but not to expect the worst. How will the ExoMARS Rover keep it's solar panels dust-free and collecting maximum power? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 26 '18 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Saiboogu: A dust storm in June 2018 covered the solar panels of the Opportunity rover and forced it into hibernation. The dust storm cleared about a month ago, and NASA tries at least once a day to re-establish contact. I just saw such an (unsuccessful) attempt about an hour ago on DSN Now. So, missions can most certainly be lost by Martian dust. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Nov 27 '18 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ Anyway, as reminded here (space.stackexchange.com/a/3491/25067), Opportunity worked fine for more than 10 years without any means to remove dust... So this in itself may answer why dusters aren't installed (you don't really need the added complication) $\endgroup$
    – BlueCoder
    Nov 27 '18 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon Opportunity wasn't lost because it was unable to clean it's panels. It was lost because it couldn't get enough sunlight to keep itself warm enough to prevent the batteries from being destroyed by the cold. Even if opportunity had had perfectly clean solar panels the entire duration of the storm, it still wouldn't have gotten enough power. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Nov 27 '18 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon I don't agree with your assumption that dust storms 'killed' Opportunity. It is my understanding that incidents like that happen when the sunlight reaching the surface is too low for too many days for the rover to keep it's electronics warm, and to build enough power for a return from hibernation. After days or weeks of unpowered cold soak, things break and the rover doesn't wake up. This may be a mistaken impression, I'm watching for answers here.. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Nov 28 '18 at 15:42

Could dusters be installed on solar panels on a Mars lander?


Is there any reason why some sort of cleaning apparatus can't be installed on the lander to keep the dust off the solar panels? Or, why was it decided not to install some sort of apparatus to keep the panels clean?

Dust removal systems must meet stringent requirements, as must anything that goes into space. There are size, weight, power efficiency, ruggedness and reliability considerations and NASA doesn't use the same type of solar panels as are used on Earth.

It's easier to do initial trials on Earth with conventional panels, but the results must be retested on the same type of panels under similar conditions to what they would face on Mars - all that testing takes many years.

See the article: "Self-Cleaning Solar Mirrors Using Electrodynamic Dust Shield: Prospects and Progress" from the ASME 2014 8th International Conference on Energy Sustainability, by Malay K. Mazumder, Mark N. Horenstein, Jeremy W. Stark, John N. Hudelson, Arash Sayyah, Nitin Joglekar, Julius Yellowhair and Adam Botts:

"Prototype EDS-integrated solar collectors including second-surface glass mirrors, metallized acrylic film mirrors, and dielectric mirrors, were produced and tested in an environmental test chambers simulating desert atmospheres. The test results show that frequent removal of dust layer can maintain the specular reflectivity of the mirrors above 90% under dust deposition at a rate ranging from 0 to 10 g/m2, with particle size varying from 1 to 50 μm in diameter. The energy required for removing the dust layer from the solar was less than 10 Wh/m2 per cleaning cycle. EDS based cleaning could therefore be automated and performed as frequently as needed to maintain reflection efficiency above 90% and thus reducing water usage for cleaning mirrors in the solar field. A comparative cost analysis was performed between EDS and deluge water based cleaning that shows the EDS method is commercially viable and would meet water conservation needs.".

CSP Solar Panel Electrodynamic Dust Removal System

Developed at Boston University the "Electrodynamic dust removal would not require water and could be operated as frequently as needed at a miniscule cost. The BU team is now one step closer toward achieving its goal after the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) awarded grants to support this research. The DOE will provide \$955,340 for solar mirrors for photothermal energy conversion while MassCEC will give another \$40,000 that will be used toward developing self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels."

Robotic and electrostatic methods appear to be the two most promising avenues for self-cleaning of desert solar power systems, but the technology is developing all the time and several projects are still very much in development. Applications for use in space remain a number of years away.


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