Ingenuity helicopter survives communications snag on Mars

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Washington, May 11

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has reestablished communications with the Perseverance rover, after facing snag last week due to cold and dust on the Red Planet.

For the first time in over a year of operations on the Mars surface, the rotorcraft missed a planned communications session with the rover, mission teams said in a blog post.

Ingenuity relies on Perseverance as the base station that enables it to send data to and receive commands from Earth.

The team determined that the cause of the communications dropout on May 3 was a result of the solar-powered helicopter entering a low-power state, potentially due to the seasonal increase in the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere and lower temperatures as winter approaches.

"The dust diminishes the amount of sunlight hitting the solar array, reducing Ingenuity's ability to recharge its six lithium-ion batteries," David Agle, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in the blogpost.

"When the battery pack's state of charge dropped below a lower limit, the helicopter's field-programmable gate array (FPGA) was powered down," he noted.

The FPGA manages Ingenuity's operational state, switching the other avionics elements to maximise power conservation.

It also operates the heaters that enable the helicopter to survive frigid Martian nights, maintains precise spacecraft time, and controls when the helicopter is scheduled to wake up for communications sessions with Perseverance.

However, when the FPGA lost power during the Martian night, the helicopter's onboard clock – which designates the time that communications with Perseverance occur – went into a reset mode; and Ingenuity's heaters were turned off.

When finally the helicopter sent a signal on Mars 5, the data transmitted was limited to deliberately preserve battery charge, but the helicopter's critical health and safety data were nominal.

"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," said Ingenuity Team Lead Teddy Tzanetos of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

"Our top priority is to maintain communications with Ingenuity in the next few sols, but even then, we know that there will be significant challenges ahead," said Tzanetos.

Ingenuity became the first powered aircraft to operate on another world on April 19, 2021.

Designed to perform up to five experimental test flights over a span of 30 Martian days (sols), or close to 31 Earth days, the rotorcraft has flown over 6.9 kilometres across 28 sorties and operated from the surface of the Red Planet for over a year.


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