NASA has regained communications with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity after losing contact for several days, the agency announced Friday.
The four-pound solar-powered chopper had been operating on Mars for nearly two years as part of the Perseverance rover mission, but stopped communicating during a flight on Wednesday. After three days of silence, the space agency reported hearing a signal from the ambitious test craft once more.
Timeline of Events
- April 2021 – Ingenuity arrives on Mars attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover and completes the first ever powered flight on another planet
- August 2022 – Having far outlived expectations, Ingenuity reaches flight #46 marking a year of operations
- January 2023 – In the course of performing scouting and reconnaissance for Perseverance, Ingenuity loses contact during flight #72
- January 20, 2024 – After attempting multiple communication sessions, NASA regains a signal from the helicopter but has not yet received telemetry or determined its status
Possible Causes Under Investigation
While the cause of the communications blackout remains unclear, NASA engineers have several working theories. Possible explanations being considered include:
- Battery charging issues due to heavy dust accumulation on the craft’s solar panels
- Mechanical failure of motors, sensors or other components critical to flight
- Extreme cold weather and storms interfering with radio links
Over the next few days, specialists will thoroughly analyze the telemetry received from Ingenuity to diagnose the failure and any damage it may have sustained. Provided it remains functional, the team aims to return the rotorcraft to active duty supporting Perseverance.
However, given the aircraft’s longevity already far surpassing expectations in the harsh Martian environment, its missions days could be numbered regardless of this latest incident.
Importance of the Helicopter Demonstration
While only weighing 4 pounds, Ingenuity has played an outsized role in demonstrating the possibilities for powered flight on Mars. Key accomplishments include:
- First controlled, powered flight on another planet
- Covered over 3.9 miles in total, scouting terrain for Perseverance
- Operated through frigid Martian nights with temperatures as low as -130°F
- Beamed back photos from altitudes up to 33 feet offering a helicopter’s eye view of the landscape
|2 minutes, 48 seconds
|Total Distance Traveled
These feats prove that Mars’ thin atmosphere permits aerial vehicles to operate despite the reduced lift capacity compared to Earth. Future rotorcraft could greatly extend the range of rover missions, provide invaluable reconnaissance, and even transport small payloads. Indeed, NASA has more Mars helicopters in development hoping to build on Ingenuity’s groundbreaking test.
While the outcome of this latest communications scare remains uncertain, NASA continues prioritizing the goals of the Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance rover has already collected 12 rock core samples storing them for eventual return to Earth by a future retrieval mission. With years left in its operational lifespan, the nuclear-powered vehicle will drive many more miles searching for signs of ancient microscopic life and characterizing the planet’s geology.
As for the Ingenuity helicopter, specialists are working diligently to recover telemetry and potentially send commands restarting flights. However, given the aircraft’s longevity already far surpassing expectations, its missions days could be numbered regardless of this latest incident. Already an undisputed success, Ingenuity’s bonus tenure helps pave the way for more ambitious Mars rotorcraft.
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