The Ingenuity Mars helicopter went silent, leaving the anxious NASA team in the dark

An image of the Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars, captured by the Perseverance rover using one of its cameras.

Late last week, NASA Ingenuity Helicopter succeeded in re-establishing its ties with the Rover of Perseverance following a brief interruption in communications. The space agency says impending winter is likely to blame and is making adjustments accordingly.

On Thursday, Ingenuity – thankfully – sent a signal to Perseverance after the intrepid helicopter missed a scheduled communication session. It was the first time since the couple landed on Mars in February 2021 that Ingenuity had missed a date, according to at NASA.

The team behind the mission believe Ingenuity had entered a low-power state to save power, and it did so in response to the charge on its six lithium-ion batteries dropping. below a critical threshold. This was likely due to the approach of winter, when more dust appears in the Martian atmosphere and temperatures cool. The dust blocks the amount of sunlight that reaches the helicopter’s solar panel, which charges its batteries.

The Perseverance rover is on a mission to find evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars, while the rover’s much smaller companion, Ingenuity, became the first powered aircraft to to take off from the surface of another planet on April 19, 2021. The two robots share a line of communication, with Perseverance relaying messages from Ingenuity to Earth. Ingenuity uses small antennas to communicate with Perseverance, exchanging data which is then routed to the rover’s main computer and transferred to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network (a worldwide network of radio antennas).

Ingenuity has an alarm that wakes the helicopter for its scheduled communication sessions with Perseverance. But on May 3, Ingenuity did not participate in the scheduled daily data exchange after its field-programmable gate array lost power overnight, causing the ship’s on-board clock to reset. helicopter (the gate network manages Ingenuity’s operational state, turning its electronic systems on and off to save power). The sun’s rays recharged Ingenuity’s batteries the next morning, but the helicopter’s clock was out of sync with Perseverance’s clock. By the time Ingenuity was able to send a signal, the rover was no longer listening.

Two days later, Mission Control set out to fix the pair’s communication problem by programming the rover to spend nearly all of its 429th sol (a Martian day, which lasts just over a day on Earth) listening to the signal from the helicopter. Ingenuity’s call finally came in on May 5 at 11:45 a.m. local March time. Although brief, Ingenuity’s call reassured the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that the helicopter’s battery was healthy and the solar panel was charging its batteries.

The ingenuity was not designed to withstand harsh Martian winter nights, as the rotorcraft was designed to last only 30 sols on Mars. But the 19-inch (48 cm), 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter has gone far beyond its test flights, recently receiving a extension of its mission to aid Perseverance in its exploration of Martian terrain. Ingenuity will now fly above the Martian surface, advising Perseverance controllers on the most ideal routes.

“We always knew that the Martian winter and dust storm season would present new challenges for Ingenuity, especially colder ground, increased atmospheric dust, and more frequent dust storms,” ​​said Teddy Tzanetos. , Ingenuity team leader at JPL. statement. “Every flight and every mile of distance traveled beyond our original 30 sol mission has pushed the spacecraft to its limits at every sol on Mars.”

For now, the team has hatched a plan to help the little helicopter survive the looming winter. The new commands issued “lower the point at which the helicopter powers its heaters from when the battery drops below 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius) to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius)”, according to NASA, which added that “the helicopter then shuts down quickly, rather than consuming battery charge with the heaters”. This should allow Ingenuity to build up battery charge during the day, which it can then use to survive extremely cold nights.

“Our top priority is to maintain communications with Ingenuity in the next few floors, but even then we know there will be significant challenges ahead,” Tzanetos said. “We hope that we can accumulate battery charge in order to return to nominal operations and continue our mission in the weeks to come.”

Even with the dropped appeal, Ingenuity still remains the small helicopter that could do it, exceeding expectations with a total of 28 recorded Mars flights. Hard to believe now, but the original plan was to have Ingenuity perform just five flights to the Red Planet.

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