Ingenuity helicopters broke new ground (air?) in April 2019, when it reported the data of its first flight—the first powered, controlled flight to another planet—to NASA scientists on Earth.
But now, Ingenuity doesn’t seem interested in talking to its engineering team; as of late, the Mars helicopter has contacted NASA scientists only sporadically and unpredictably.
The communication breakdown makes it difficult for the Ingenuity team to guide the rover around the Martian landscape—and more importantly, both within range of but safely away from the Perseverance rover, the real star of the Mars 2020 program.
According to a status update writes Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, the communication problems began in earnest after Ingenuity’s 49th flight on April 2, 2023, which set records for rotorcraft altitude and airspeed.
Following the downlink of data from its 49th flight, the Ingenuity team failed to uplink the instructions for the next rotocraft flight.
But Ingenuity’s communication issues go back much further, Brown wrote. Shortly after the rotorcraft’s 40th flight in January 2023, Ingenuity began battling “brownouts”—periods when the chopper would slip into its low-power mode, keeping the craft alive in harsh conditions. winter night on mars Last year, a cold-induced low power state gave NASA engineers similar fears about the helicopter’s survivability.
It became difficult to predict when Ingenuity would wake up from these brownouts, making it difficult for the team to coordinate rotorcraft flights. All the while, the Perseverance rover continues its procession along the western rim of Jezero Crater, probing a dry river delta for areas of geological and astrobiological interest.
On Sol 755, the team lost contact with the helicopter again, and there was radio silence for the next week (a Sol on Mars, or a Martian day, is about 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds length). The team began to consider the possibility that Ingenuity had died. “In more than 700 sols operating a helicopter on Mars, we’ve never once experienced a total radio blackout,” Brown said in blog post. But on Sols 761 and 762, singular radio pings confirmed that the spunky space helicopter remained.
The team determined that a Martian ridge between Perseverance and Ingenuity was blocking communications from the helicopter. Since Ingenuity has go from a tech demo flying other worlds to a scout for Perseverancecharged with investigating the Jezero Delta, the helicopter usually stayed ahead of the rover’s expected path.
Because of this, flight 50 was a close shave for the helicopter team. They were able to uplink flight instructions to the rover as Perseverance approached it, coming within 262 feet (80 meters) of the helicopter.
Brown said the dust on the helicopter’s solar panels means the cat-and-mouse game could continue, as Ingenuity could struggle to get power. Let’s hope the team doesn’t encounter a similar buildup somewhere InSight lander mission completed late last year.
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