NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, a rotorcraft on Mars, briefly lost touch with the Perseverance rover last week. The helicopter has since regained its connection—but the Martian winter may pose more difficulties in the coming months.
Ingenuity, the first aircraft to achieve controlled and powered flight on another world, missed a scheduled communication session with Perseverance on May 3. The rover acts as Ingenuity’s base station, which sends the helicopter’s data back to Earth while receiving and relaying NASA commands. This is the first communication blackout since the two robots landed on the Red Planet in February 2021.
A seasonal increase in atmospheric dust, a feature of the approaching Mars winter, caused the blackout by preventing Ingenuity’s solar arrays from being able to fully recharge its batteries. During Martian night, one of the helicopter’s instruments entered a low-power state and reset its clocks. “When the sun rose the next morning and the solar array began to charge the batteries, the helicopter’s clock was no longer in sync with the clock aboard the rover,” NASA wrote in a statement. “Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance, the rover’s base station wasn’t listening.”
Thankfully the communication drop was short-lived. Once NASA astronomers realized that Perseverance and Ingenuity were out of sync, they commanded the rover to be on continuous alert for Ingenuity’s transmissions. On May 5, NASA’s mission controllers confirmed that the two craft reestablished their connection.
Ingenuity was originally designed to perform up to five experimental test flights over a span of 30 Martian days, or “sols,” but the helicopter has far exceeded NASA’s expectations. In the Earth year since it landed, Ingenuity has flown over 4.2 miles across the Red Planet, and NASA extended the rotorcraft’s mission in March. The agency has planned flight operations through September.
But Ingenuity wasn’t necessarily designed to withstand the Martian winter’s harshness. The helicopter may have reestablished transmissions with Perseverance, but it’s not fully in the clear.
“We have always known that Martian winter and dust storm season would present new challenges for Ingenuity, specifically colder sols, an increase in atmospheric dust, and more frequent dust storms,” Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California said in a statement. “Our top priority is to maintain communications with Ingenuity in the next few sols,” he added.
To preserve battery power and increase chances of retaining consistent signals, NASA engineers reprogrammed Ingenuity’s heaters. Over the next few days, when Mars reaches minus 40°F at night, Ingenuity will shut down quickly, rather than waste precious energy trying to keep the helicopter powered and warm. NASA hopes this will give the instrument a chance to soak up and store enough energy to return to normal operations soon.