Ingenuity Mars helicopter fell 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 wit helicopter managed to reestablish his connection with the perseverance vehicle after a brief interruption of communications. The space agency says the coming winter is likely to blame and is making adjustments as a result.

On Thursday, Ingenuity fortunately sent a signal to Perseverance after the intrepid helicopter missed a scheduled communications session. It was the first time since the two landed on Mars together in February 2021 that Ingenuity had missed a date. according to NASA

The team behind the mission believes that Ingenuity entered a low-power state to conserve energy, and did so in response to the charge in its six lithium-ion batteries falling below a critical threshold. This was probably due to the approach of winter, when more dust appears in the Martian atmosphere and temperatures get colder. The dust blocks the amount of sunlight reaching 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 on take off from the surface of another planet on April 19, 2021. The two robots share a line of communication, with Perseverance relaying Ingenuity’s messages to Earth. Ingenuity uses small antennas to communicate with Perseverance, exchanging data that is then routed to the rover’s main computer and transferred to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network (a global array of radio antennas).

Ingenuity has an alarm that wakes up the helicopter for her scheduled communication sessions with Perseverance. But on May 3, Ingenuity failed to show up for the scheduled daily data exchange after its field-programmable gate array lost power overnight, causing a helicopter onboard clock to be reset (the gate array manages Ingenuity’s operational status, turning on its electronic systems). and off to conserve energy). The sun’s rays recharged Ingenuity’s batteries the next morning, but the helicopter’s clock was now 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 almost all of its sol 429 (a Martian day, which lasts a little longer than a day on Earth). listening to the signal from the helicopter. Ingenuity’s call finally came on May 5 at 11:45 am Mars local time. Though brief, Ingenuity’s call assured the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that the helicopter’s battery was healthy and that the solar panel was recharging its batteries.

Ingenuity wasn’t exactly built to withstand harsh Martian winter nights, as the helicopter was designed to last only 30 sols on Mars. But the 19-inch-tall (48 cm), 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter has gone far beyond its test flights, recently receiving an mission extension to help Perseverance as she explores the Martian terrain. Ingenuity will now fly over 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, specifically cooler suns, an increase in atmospheric dust, and more frequent dust storms,” ​​said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team leader at JPL. , it’s a statement. statement. “Every flight and every mile of distance traveled beyond our original 30-sol mission has pushed the spacecraft to its limits on each and every sol on Mars.”

For now, the team has come up with a plan to help the little helicopter survive the coming winter. The newly issued commands “lower the point at which the helicopter energizes 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 rapidly shuts down, rather than consuming battery charge with heaters.” This should allow Ingenuity to build up battery charge during the day, which it can then use to survive very cold nights.

“Our top priority is to maintain communications with Ingenuity for the next few sols, but even then, we know there will be significant challenges ahead,” Tzanetos said. “We are hopeful that we will be able to build up the battery charge to return to nominal operations and continue our mission in the coming weeks.”

Even with the call cancelled, Ingenuity is still the little helicopter that could, exceeding expectations with a total of 28 recorded Mars flights. It’s hard to believe now, but the original plan was for Ingenuity to make just five flights to the Red Planet.

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