The Mars Ingenuity helicopter is on borrowed time as it endures the winter

For the first time, the Ingenuity team on Earth lost contact with Ingenuity on floors 427 and 428, or Martian days that correspond to May 3 and 4. The small helicopter’s engineers spent a week investigating what could have caused the communication failure.

The team discovered that the loss of contact occurred because Ingenuity experienced insufficient battery charge after dark. This reduced voltage reset the mission clock, causing the helicopter system to become out of sync with its companion, the Perseverance rover. Although Ingenuity has resumed relaying messages reliably back to Earth via the rover, the team expects this issue to reoccur.

That’s because it’s the start of winter on Mars. Winter on the Red Planet will last until September or October. During the Martian winter, dust enters the atmosphere and obscures the light needed to charge Ingenuity’s solar panels.

So far, Ingenuity has flown 6.8 kilometers on 28 different flights.

The helicopter remains healthy and has resumed operations, albeit slightly modified, and the team remains optimistic that Ingenuity will soon be making its 29th flight. But there is no doubt that Ingenuity is on borrowed time.

“Challenges like these are to be expected: After hundreds of sols and dozens of flights beyond the originally planned five flights, the solar-powered helicopter finds itself in uncharted territory,” said Teddy Tzanetos, manager. of the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. , wrote in a update.

“We are now operating well beyond our original design limits. Historically, Mars has been very difficult for spacecraft (especially solar-powered spacecraft). Every floor could be Ingenuity’s last.”

Martian winter is coming

With winter on Mars, Ingenuity will experience more dust in the air and lower temperatures, which could wreak havoc on the helicopter’s ability to stay powered, warm and operational.

As a result, Ingenuity will no longer be able to maintain its battery and electronics at a programmed temperature threshold of minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius) using heaters.

Instead, the air vehicle will experience nighttime temperatures of minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius), which could pose a risk to electronic components. So far these are holding up and have not suffered any damage during the freezing nights.

Each morning as the helicopter warms up and recharges, the previous night’s power outage will throw the mission clock out of alignment.

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Perseverance needs to be a little more creative now when communicating with Ingenuity. Basically, the rover needs to allow the helicopter to “sleep” and wake up at the wrong time due to its clock problem. Using its onboard helicopter base station, Perseverance is able to chat with Ingenuity each day and reschedule the helicopter’s mission clock for that day.

The Ingenuity team can’t predict how Ingenuity’s core electronics module components will perform through the winter, but “the cold-soaked electronics are believed to have caused Opportunity rover missions to end.” and Spirit Mars,” Tzanetos wrote in the update.

Currently, Ingenuity is reaching sunset on Mars with a state of charge of around 68% for its battery. The chopper needs at least 70% to keep its heating elements, clock and central electronics powered overnight, JPL engineers estimated.

“Our 2% deficit (State of Charge) should reach a 7% deficit once we reach the winter solstice (Sol 500 in July), at which time conditions will begin to improve,” Tzanetos wrote.

Preparing for the future

Recovering Ingenuity’s data, including its flight performance logs and color images from the previous eight flights, became the top priority. Next, the mission team will determine if the helicopter is ready for another flight and instruct the helicopter to spin its rotors at high speed.

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If Ingenuity is able to make a short flight to the southwest, the small helicopter will be in a good position to communicate with the Perseverance rover as it surveys and collects samples in an ancient river delta.

The flight software team is also working on upgrades to Ingenuity’s advanced navigation capabilities to help it fly over the river delta and continue to function as an aerial scout for the rover.

“The Perseverance and Ingenuity operations teams have done an extraordinary job restoring reliable communications with Ingenuity,” Tzanetos wrote.

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