The achievement of powered flight to another world is one of the great space feats of the past decade. Since its first brief jump on April 19, 2021, the planet Mars Ingenuity The helicopter then made 27 more flights, covering almost 7 km on the surface of the red planet and in reconnaissance for NASA Perseverance vagabond. It far exceeded the expectations and hopes of its scientists and engineers.
But recently, the small automated helicopter has had problems with dust accumulating on its solar panels, according to NASA. This dust reduces the vehicle’s ability to charge its six lithium-ion batteries. And just as the helicopter needs all the solar power it can get, Mars’ northern hemisphere is approaching deep winter, which is just over two months away.
Due to these battery issues, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory helicopter flight controller team lost contact with the helicopter on May 3. They closely monitored the health of their tiny spacecraft, especially the state of charge of its batteries. After losing contact, engineers figured the IngenuityThe array of field-programmable gates—essentially, its flight computer—entered shutdown mode due to a lack of power. In such a situation, virtually all of the helicopter’s onboard electronics shut down to protect them from the cold nighttime temperatures, over 100° Fahrenheit below freezing. This included the internal clock.
With this working hypothesis, the engineers on Earth took an extraordinary step to save their brave helicopter. Ingenuity landed on Mars in February 2021 as a small component on the much larger Perseverance rover, which it uses as a bridge to communicate with Earth. After it closed earlier this month, engineers figured that when the sun came up and IngenuityThe batteries were beginning to charge, he was trying to communicate with the nearby rover. Only because his internal clock had reset, when Ingenuity tried to call Perseverancethe rover would not listen.
So the engineering team ordered Perseverance to stop all current scientific activities for an entire day to sit down and listen carefully Ingenuitythe call. The significance of this is that the helicopter was initially seen as a demonstration of complementary technology. Some members of the rover’s management team didn’t even want the added risk of bringing Ingenuity on. The helicopter was to make five experimental flights in 30 days and then be put aside. Now the entire Mars mission was on hold, nearly 13 months later Ingenuityfirst flight of, hoping to save the small vehicle.
Well, fortunately, Ingenuity called home after about 24 hours. According to NASA, the link was stable and the solar panel managed to charge its batteries to 41%. Engineers say they hope to resume Ingenuityof the flight campaign in the next few days, after having fully charged the batteries of the helicopter.
Unfortunately, this may be the beginning of the end for a helicopter that far exceeded all expectations. NASA engineers had to take quite drastic measures to preserve Ingenuitybattery charging. For example, they’ve now ordered the helicopter’s heaters to turn on only when the battery temperature drops to -40°, much colder than the previous point of 5° Fahrenheit. It’s unclear how many off-the-shelf components of the vehicle will function without this additional heating during cold Martian nights.
And Mars will only get colder and darker over the next 10 weeks as winter deepens.