Just a couple of weeks after the Ingenuity helicopter celebrated a year of flying on Mars, it became quiet.
For the first time, the Ingenuity team on Earth lost contact with Ingenuity on suns 427 and 428, or March days corresponding to May 3 and May 4. The small helicopter’s engineers spent a week investigating what may have caused the communication outage.
The team discovered that contact loss occurred because Ingenuity experienced insufficient battery charge when night fell. This reduced voltage reset the mission clock, which meant that the helicopter’s system was not synchronized with its companion, the Perseverance rover. While Ingenuity has returned to relaying messages to Earth reliably through the rover, the team expects this problem to happen again.
This is because it is early winter on Mars. The winter on the red planet will last until September or October. During the March winter, dust is lifted into the atmosphere and obscures the light needed to charge Ingenuity’s solar panels.
To date, Ingenuity has logged 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometers) over 28 different flights.
The helicopter is still healthy and has resumed operations, albeit slightly modified, and the team is still optimistic that Ingenuity will soon embark on its 29th flight. But it can not be mistaken that Ingenuity is on borrowed time.
“Challenges like these are to be expected: After hundreds of suns and dozens of flights in addition to the five originally planned flights, the solar-powered helicopter is in unknown terrain,” wrote Teddy Tzanetos, ingenuity team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. in a update.
“We are now operating far beyond our original design limits. Historically, Mars has been very challenging for spacecraft (especially solar-powered spacecraft). Each sun can be Ingenuity’s last.”
The March winter is coming
With the winter on Mars, Ingenuity will experience more dust in the air and falling temperatures – both of which can wreak havoc on the chopper’s ability to stay driven, warm and functional.
As a result, Ingenuity will no longer be able to keep its battery and electronics at a programmed temperature threshold of minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius) using heaters.
Instead, the aircraft will experience temperatures of minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 80 degrees Celsius) overnight, which can pose a risk to all electronic components. So far, these are stable and have not been damaged during the chilly nights.
Every morning when the helicopter is warming up and charging, the blackout from the previous night will set the mission clock.
Perseverance needs to be a little more creative now that you are communicating with Ingenuity. Basically, the rover must allow the helicopter to “sleep” and wake up at the wrong time due to its clock problems. Using its built-in Helicopter Base Station, Perseverance can chat with Ingenuity every day and reprogram the helicopter’s mission clock for that day.
The Ingenuity team can not predict how Ingenuity’s electronics core module components will perform during the winter, but “cold soaking electronics are believed to have caused the end of the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rover missions,” Tzanetos wrote in the update.
Ingenuity is currently reaching the sunset on Mars with about 68% charge charge for its battery. The chopper needs at least 70% to keep its heaters, clock and nuclear electronics powered overnight, estimated JPL engineers.
“Our state-of-charge deficit of 2% is expected to grow to a 7% deficit when we reach the winter solstice (Solar 500 in July), when conditions will begin to improve,” Tzanetos wrote.
Preparing for the future
Retrieving data from Ingenuity, including its flight performance logs and color images from the previous eight flights, has become a top priority. The mission team will then determine if the helicopter is ready for a new flight and let the chopper perform a high-speed spin of its rotors.
If Ingenuity can make a short flight to the southwest, the small copter will be in a good position to communicate with the Perseverance rover as it studies and collects samples from an old river delta.
The flight software team is also working on upgrades for Ingenuity’s advanced navigation features to help it fly over the river delta and continue to act as a rover flight scout.
“The endurance and Ingenuity operations teams have done an outstanding job of restoring reliable communications with Ingenuity,” Tzanetos wrote.
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