NASA’s tiny Mars helicopter is making history as a smart, controlled flight on another planet. Despite facing many changes along the way, the rotorcraft has proven its value in providing tactical and scientific scouts for the mission. Recently, the mission team faced a significant setback when it experienced an unexpected week-long communications outage with the small aircraft.
„In more than 700 Sols operating a helicopter on Mars, we have never once experienced a total radio blackout,” Travis Brown, chief engineer of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in a blog post.
A first-of-its-kind communications blackout began on Sol 755, when after a missed communication, the Perseverance rover with intelligence on Mars moved to a location southeast of Castel Henlis to conduct science surveys in the area. This placed the rover in a deep communications shadow, further complicating attempts to establish contact with intelligence. As the search for the helicopter continued, the team considered various scenarios and explanations for the loss of communications.
After several sols without contact, Ingenuity’s communications team received a single, isolated radio acknowledgment (ACK) from Ingenuity on Sol 761. The acknowledgment came at precisely the time the crew expected the helicopter to take off. Another ACK on Sol 762 confirmed that Intelligence was indeed alive and functioning, giving the team some much-needed relief.
The blackout was caused by challenging topography between the rover and the helicopter, particularly a moderate ridge located southeast of the Flight 49 landing site. This ridge created a communication shadow and added difficulty to radio signals used by intelligence. Conditions only improved as the rover moved closer to the helicopter, reducing the impact of the ridge.
Following the re-establishment of communication, the Perseverance accelerated its movements up the Jezero Delta, approaching Intelligence. This presented a dilemma for the intelligence team as they had to incorporate a flight plan to keep the helicopter ahead of the rover. Despite the recent lack of communication, the team took the risk and successfully commandeered Ingenuity’s 50th flight. The helicopter flew over 300 meters and reached a new record height of 18 meters.
However, challenges to intelligence continue. Dust covering its solar panel suggests it will be in an intermediate power state, prolonging the team’s challenges of playing hide-and-seek with communications and flight.
„This means, to the chagrin of his team, we’re not yet playing this high-stakes game of hide-and-seek with a playful little helicopter,” Brown said.
„Oddany rozwiązywacz problemów. Przyjazny hipsterom praktykant bekonu. Miłośnik kawy. Nieuleczalny introwertyk. Student.