NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has captured the love of the world with its explorations of Mars, which have been far more successful than even the most optimistic forecasts. But after 28 flights, the helicopter begins to suffer from the severe conditions of the Martian winter.
With seasonal changes on Mars, there is more and more dust in the atmosphere, and this is causing problems for Ingenuity and threatening the future of the helicopter. This is because dust is whipped up in the thin atmosphere and settles on the helicopter’s solar panel, which decreases the amount of power it can collect from the sun. The helicopter was already experiencing a problem where communications with it were lost due to a lack of power, which caused the helicopter’s internal clock to reset and which meant it missed its registration with the Perseverance research vehicle.
In NASA blogIngenuity Team Lead Teddy Tzanetos explained that the team expects Ingenuity to have ongoing power outages during the March winter, which lasts until September or October.
“Such challenges are to be expected: after hundreds of solos and dozens of flights beyond the five flights originally planned, the solar-powered helicopter is on unmapped terrain,” Tzanetos wrote. “We now operate well beyond our original design limits. Historically, Mars is very difficult for a spacecraft (especially a solar-powered spacecraft). Every sun could be the last of Ingenuity.”
The main threat to Ingenuity is the cold. The heaters that heat Ingenuity at night use a lot of power, and as the nights get colder, they need more. But with less power, Ingenuity can no longer run its heaters all night, so some of its components will fall below their nominal temperatures at times. This will damage the hardware over time, but it is difficult to predict exactly how long the components will last.
The team’s first priority now is to get all the data from Ingenuity and copy it to the helicopter base station to make sure as much data as possible is stored. Then they want to keep Ingenuity as long as possible. They plan to perform a test spin of the helicopter’s rotors before each flight, to check that everything is working and has not been damaged by the sudden cold. If the test looks good, they will be able to continue with flight 29 as planned within the next few days.
They will maintain daily communication with Ingenuity by contacting it every morning when it will most likely have enough power to try to get it up and running, in a process called search activity. This allows them to reset Ingenuity’s onboard clock and schedule any activities for the day, to harness the greatest power they have.
“Every telemetry so far unleashed suggests that Ingenuity is healthy, with no signs of damage from the sudden cold cycles,” Tzanetos wrote. “This morning search followed by evening activities is our new normal for the immediate future.”