Ingenuity, NASA’s autonomous Mars helicopter, was only supposed to perform five flights. But since its historic first flight in April 2021, the helicopter has completed 28 flights and preparations are underway for the 29th. Depending on dust levels and the Perseverance rover’s schedule, that flight could take place later this week. But now Ingenuity faces a new challenge: It’s unclear whether the helicopter will survive the upcoming Martian winter, which begins in July.
Since one Martian year equals approximately two years on Earth, and the helicopter is in the northern hemisphere, this is Ingenuity’s first winter. As the solstice approaches, the days get shorter and the nights get longer, and dust storms may become more frequent. All of this means less sunlight for the solar panels mounted above the helicopter’s two 4-foot rotor blades. Dust on the solar panels recently spelled the death knell for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and the effects of cold weather on the electronics are believed to have played a role in the end of the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rover missions.
“We believe it’s possible to survive,” Dave Lavery, NASA program manager for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, told WIRED, but “every extra day is a gift.” JPL Ingenuity team leader Teddy Tzanetos recently wrote in a NASA blog post that “every sol (Martian day) could be Ingenuity’s last.”
Last month, Ingenuity briefly lost contact with Earth due to a drop in battery life, the majority of which is dedicated to heating. NASA reestablished contact with Ingenuity after two days, but due to battery levels falling below 70% and steadily lower temperatures, Ingenuity will suspend use of onboard heaters at night to conserve power throughout. four months of winter. The heaters typically kick in when the temperature drops below -5° Fahrenheit, a figure reduced to -40 after the battery blackout and communications blackout last month. Outside temperatures during the Martian winter can drop to -112° at night, increasing the likelihood of damage to electronic components inside the helicopter.
On Monday, NASA announced a sensor failure, delaying Flight 29 and forcing NASA to link a software fix and rely on another sensor to govern Ingenuity’s navigation algorithms.
Dust storms are an X-factor. A study published in May by a team from the University of Houston examined NASA sensor data over a period of four Martian years and found that solar energy imbalances and warm weather in the south increase the likelihood of massive dust storms that can blanket the entire planet. Spring and summer are known as stormy seasons, but the likelihood of severe storms decreases as the north approaches the winter solstice, says Liming Li, an associate professor at the University of Houston. But there is a caveat: the study is global and does not take into account any particular region. Conditions may also be different in craters than on the rest of the surface, and the helicopter operates in Jezero Crater.
“It’s hard to say,” Li said when asked if more dust storms were on the way. “It’s hard to give a clear picture of the radiation budget in Jezero Crater before actually measuring it.”
While Ingenuity interrupts normal flight activity, the team will focus on transferring data such as flight performance logs and high-definition images from the last eight flights and on software upgrades. Based on a climate model, NASA expects solar energy levels to rebound to a level that allows normal activity to resume this fall. By September or October, if Ingenuity is able to regain the ability to heat its systems at night, it could resume regular flight operations, scouting for potential locations for the Perseverance rover to hide a collection of rock samples and ground and explores what scientists believe used to be a river delta in Jezero Crater.