The Ingenuity Mars helicopter fell silent, leaving the worried NASA team in the dark

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

Late last week, NASA ingenuity helicopter successful in reestablishing his ties with the Rover of Endurance after a short break in communication. The space agency says the approaching winter is likely to blame and is making adjustments accordingly.

On Thursday, Ingenuity — thankfully — sent a signal to Perseverance after the Intrepid chopper missed a scheduled communications session. It was the first time Ingenuity had missed a date since the couple landed on Mars in February 2021. corresponding at NASA.

The team behind the mission believe that Ingenuity entered a low-power mode to conserve power in response to the charge on its six lithium-ion batteries falling below a critical threshold. This was likely due to the approaching winter, when more dust will appear in the Martian atmosphere and temperatures will be cooler. 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 Find evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars, while the rover’s much smaller companion, Ingenuity, was the first powered aircraft 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 and exchange data, which is then relayed to the rover’s main computer and transmitted to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network (a worldwide network of radio antennas).

Ingenuity features 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 onboard clock to reset (turning on and off to conserve 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. When Ingenuity was able to send a signal, the rover stopped listening.

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

The ingenuity wasn’t designed to withstand harsh winter nights on Mars, as the rotorcraft was only rated for 30 sols on Mars. But the 19-inch (48 cm) and 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter has gone well beyond its test flights, which it recently received a expansion of its mission to assist Perseverance in exploring the terrain of Mars. Ingenuity will now fly over the surface of Mars and advise 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 colder soils, more dust in the atmosphere, and more frequent dust storms,” ​​said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity Team Lead at JPL. Explanation. “Each flight and mile traveled beyond our original 30-sol mission has pushed the spacecraft to the limit on each sol on Mars.”

For now, the team hatched a plan to help the little helicopter survive the looming winter. The new commands issued “lower the point at which the helicopter is powering 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 the NASA adding that “The helicopter then shuts down quickly instead of wasting 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 communication with Ingenuity on the next few floors, but even then we know there are significant challenges ahead,” said Tzanetos. “We hope to accumulate battery charge to return to nominal operation and continue our mission in the coming weeks.”

Despite its decreased appeal, Ingenuity still remains the small helicopter that could make it, exceeding expectations with a total of 28 recorded flights to Mars. Hard to believe, but originally it was planned that Ingenuity would only make five flights to the Red Planet.