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May 29, 2022

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NASA Mars Helicopter Survives Communications Snag as Dust, Cold Intensify

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Mars isn’t nice to solar panels. The infamously dusty planet took out NASA’s Opportunity rover a few years ago, has challenged the InSight lander and is now giving the Ingenuity helicopter a hard time. The rotorcraft briefly lost communication with its companion Perseverance rover, and the chopper team thinks dust in the atmosphere may have played into the problem.

The remarkable flying machine has exceeded expectations and flown 28 times since arriving with the rover in early 2021. It communicates with Earth by using Perseverance as a relay.

Ingenuity experienced a communications dropout with the rover on May 3, but reestablished contact on May 5. In a statement on Friday, NASA JPL said the helicopter entered a low-power state, likely triggered by a seasonal increase in dust combined with lower temperatures from the oncoming Martian winter. Essentially, it’s not an optimal time for sunbathing.

Ingenuity relies on its solar-charged batteries to function, communicate and make it through the brutally cold nights. It seems the helicopter missed its scheduled rover communications session when a key component called the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) lost power during the night. The rotorcraft’s clock reset. “Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance, the rover’s base station wasn’t listening,” NASA said. 

As any concerned rover would do, Perseverance began to listen for Ingenuity (thanks to commands from Earth) over a longer stretch of time and finally reestablished contact. The helicopter reported in as healthy. 

It’s a relief that Ingenuity got back in touch, but there could be longer-term problems. “The increased (light-reducing) dust in the air means charging the helicopter’s batteries to a level that will allow important components (like the clock and heaters) to remain energized throughout the night presents a significant challenge,” NASA said.

In a bid to extend Ingenuity’s mission, the team is commanding the rotorcraft to make adjustments to how it handles its heaters to maintain a battery charge through the night. The idea is to build up the charge even if it means exposing some delicate components to the cold. 

“Our top priority is to maintain communications with Ingenuity in the next few sols, but even then, we know that there will be significant challenges ahead,” said Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos.

If all goes well, Ingenuity will get to continue its work of scouting the Martian terrain as Perseverance explores an intriguing river delta region in the Jezero Crater. Every flight Ingenuity makes is worthy of celebration and further proof aerial exploration is possible on other worlds.