The small Mars helicopter Ingenuity lost contact with its rover last week and was also cut off from communication with Earth. The approaching winter, which is accompanied by an increase in dust in the atmosphere, is probably responsible, explains NASA. That’s why it’s becoming more difficult for Ingenuity to charge its batteries with solar energy. The team on Earth has reestablished contact and made changes to keep the helicopter operational. However, it admits that “significant challenges lie ahead”. So the end of the revolutionary vehicle could be near.
Top priority: refill the battery
Like David Agle explained by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ingenuity had stopped communicating with Perseverance on May 3rd. The rover serves as a relay to Earth. When the cancellation was noticed, it was assumed that the helicopter’s battery level had fallen too far, which is why its clock, among other things, is likely to have been set back. As a result, he was no longer able to meet the agreed radio appointments. For this reason, Perseverance stopped its planned work on May 5 and continuously waited for signals from the helicopter. They arrived around noon local time and contact with Ingenuity was restored. Its condition is fine, the battery was 41 percent full.
With reduced solar radiation, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to power key aircraft components, NASA adds. A plan has therefore been drawn up to ensure that the batteries are charged during the day so that there is enough electricity for the cold nights. To do this, Ingenuity should only activate its heating elements when the temperature of the battery drops to -40 degrees Celsius and not at -15 degrees Celsius. As soon as it has reached the specified temperature, it should switch itself off again to save electricity. In this way he should now recharge the batteries over several days so that he can return to normal operating mode.
If the internal heating is now activated much later, it means that the components of the device are more exposed to the cold Martian night. It remains to be seen whether and how long the helicopter can withstand this: “Our top priority now is to maintain contact over the next few days on Mars, but even if that works, there are major challenges ahead of us,” says Mission Manager Teddy Tzanetos. When he adds that he couldn’t be more proud of his team and their performance, that already sounds like the first parting words.
Ingenuity had landed on Mars a year ago with Perseverance and was only there to prove that motorized aircraft could take off there. He delivered that demonstration with the historic first powered flight on Mars, and after several more flights, NASA decided not to abandon Ingenuity as originally planned. Since then, Ingenuity has been accompanying the rover, whose mission is once again the focus, and, among other things, takes high-resolution color photos from above.