NASA has lost contact with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small robotic rotorcraft that has been operating on the red planet for nearly two years, conducting test flights to demonstrate powered flight on another world for the first time.
The Ingenuity helicopter was designed as a technology demonstration to travel with the Perseverance rover which landed on Mars in February 2021. Ingenuity is a small rotorcraft weighing only 4 pounds and features counter-rotating blades that spin at over 2,500 revolutions per minute – fast enough to achieve lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere.
Key Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Facts
|4 lbs (1.8 kg)
|19 inches (49 cm)
|4 feet (1.2 m)
|Max Flight Time
|Up to 3 minutes
|Solar Panel, Li-Ion Battery
Ingenuity successfully performed the first powered flight on another planet on April 19th, 2021. In total it has completed 28 flights over the course of nearly two years, scouting ahead for the Perseverance rover and demonstrating the potential for aerial exploration of Mars.
On January 20th, 2024, NASA officials reported that they had unexpectedly lost contact with the helicopter four days prior. The last successful communication session occurred on January 15th as Ingenuity was preparing for its 29th flight on Mars.
Telemetry data sent back during that communications pass indicated no issues with the helicopter. However, scheduled communications on January 19th resulted in no response from Ingenuity despite repeated attempts by mission controllers.
“We are still working to re-establish contact with Ingenuity after communications were lost earlier this week,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity Operations Lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The helicopter’s power levels, battery charge, and thermal control systems were all nominal during our last contact, so we are still assessing what could have occurred to cause the communications fault.”
Engineers have several working theories that could explain the communications failure:
Battery Failure – Though showing no signs of issues during last contact, it’s possible Ingenuity’s batteries have failed or discharged more quickly than expected. This would leave the helicopter unable to power its communications system.
Mechanical Failure – A problem with Ingenuity’s rotor mechanism, actuators or internal components related to flight operations could make communication impossible if electrical connections have been disrupted.
Damage or Tipping – If Ingenuity experienced a steep tilt or topple during an attempted flight, perhaps due to a navigation error or wind gust, it could have disrupted critical internal systems.
Extreme Temperatures – The daily temperatures on Mars’ surface can range from -130°F to +10°F. If Ingenuity’s heating systems failed to keep internal components sufficiently warm, electronics could have frozen.
Sand/Dust Intrusion – Mars frequent dust storms could potentially have enveloped Ingenuity leading to fouling of mechanical parts or covering solar panels with opaque dust.
JPL engineers will be conducting new attempts to contact Ingenuity daily as long as the helicopter has power. Troubleshooting efforts will include:
- Listening for telemetry broadcasts the helicopter may send autonomously
- Automated relaying of basic commands to reboot communications gear
- Transmitting more detailed commands to flush buffers, overwrite memory and reset systems in case of crashes or freezes
Orbital assets at Mars will also be used to attempt to locate Ingenuity on the surface using high-powered cameras. By spotting the helicopter’s location, terrain details could provide clues to help explain the malfunction.
Impact to Perseverance
NASA emphasizes that Ingenuity is considered a separate technology demonstration experiment and was never intended to have an operational role for Perseverance. Thus its loss, while unfortunate, will not reduce the science output of the next-generation rover.
“We always knew Ingenuity had a limited lifetime in the harsh Martian environment, but every flight has returned invaluable data for future Mars exploration,” said Canham. “Our top priority now is getting Perseverance to the delta for its astrobiology sampling campaign.”
If contact can be re-established however, NASA says it could choose to update Ingenuity’s flight software to transition into a more operational role as an occasional scout for Perseverance.
While the loss of Ingenuity after 28 successful flights is certainly disappointing, NASA officials stress that the knowledge gained paves the way for more advanced Mars rotorcraft:
- Ingenuity demonstrated the ability for rotorcraft to operate in Mars thin atmosphere. Future designs can apply this knowledge.
- Telemetry data will help model and mitigate dust/sand erosion on Mars which impacts solar power.
- Operational experience will shorten development timelines for science gathering helicopters.
“We have proven innovative rotorcraft can not only explore but survive for long durations with proper shielding and power systems,” said Canham. “Ingenuity may be silent, but future Mars helicopters building on its success will help write the next great chapters of Mars exploration.”
This story is still developing as NASA engineers work to re-establish contact with the pioneering robotic helicopter. The loss of Ingenuity would close out an immensely successful technology demonstration, though would thankfully not reduce Perseverance’s upcoming science operations. With over two hours of flight time logged and terabytes of engineering data returned, Ingenuity has proven the viability of powered flight on Mars and paved the way for operational rotorcraft in future mission.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.