The Ingenuity helicopter broke new ground (air?) in April 2019. when it transmitted data from its first flight – the first powered, controlled flight on another planet– to NASA scientists on Earth.
But now it seems that Ingenuity has no interest whatsoever in communicating with its engineering team; So far, the Mars helicopter has only communicated intermittently and unpredictably with NASA scientists.
The communications outage has made it difficult for the Ingenuity team to navigate the ship across the Martian landscape, both within range and safely away from the Perseverance rover, the real star of the Mars 2020 program.
according to a status update Written by Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, the communications problems began in earnest after Ingenuity’s 49th flight on April 2, 2023, which set records for the rotorcraft’s altitude and airspeed.
After downlinking data from its 49th flight, the Ingenuity team missed the uplink instructions for the rotorcraft’s next flight.
But the problems with communicating Ingenuity go back even further, Brown wrote. Shortly after the rotorcraft’s 40th flight in January 2023, Ingenuity began to struggle with “brownouts” — periods when the helicopter went into a low-power mode that kept the craft alive during harsh winter nights on Mars. Last year, a cold-related energy shortage condition sparked similar fears among NASA engineers about the helicopter’s survivability.
It became difficult to predict when Ingenuity would wake up from these power outages, which in turn made it difficult for the team to coordinate the rotorcraft’s flights. Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover continues its procession across the western rim of Jezero Crater, surveying a dry river delta for areas of geological and astrobiological interest.
On Sol 755, the team lost contact with the helicopter again, and radio silence prevailed for the next week (a sol on Mars, or a single Martian day, lasts approximately 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds). The team began to consider the possibility that Ingenuity had died. “In more than 700 sols we’ve operated by helicopter on Mars, we’ve never experienced a total radio blackout,” Brown said in the report blog entry. But on Sols 761 and 762, isolated radio pings confirmed the plucky space helicopter persisted.
The team found that a Martian ridge between Perseverance and Ingenuity was interfering with the helicopter’s communications. Since Ingenuity went from being a tech demo of flying on other worlds to being a scout for Perseverancetasked with surveying the Jezero Delta, the helicopter generally stayed ahead of the rover’s planned trajectory.
That made Flight 50 a close affair for the helicopter team. They were successful in relaying flight instructions to the rover as Perseverance approached and came within 262 feet (80 meters) of the helicopter.
Brown noted that dust on the helicopter’s solar panels could mean the cat-and-mouse game could continue as Ingenuity may struggle to get power. Hopefully the team won’t come across a similar setup completed the InSight lander mission At the end of last year.
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