NASA Suspended Perseverance Operations to Save Mars Helicopter


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It’s hard to overstate the importance of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is only beginning its exploration of the red planet. This robot is bristling with advanced instruments that could help reveal evidence of past Martian life, but this has almost been overshadowed by a mere technology demonstration that was along for the ride. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has exceeded all expectations, but its days might be numbered. Following a recent power issue, NASA suspended the rover’s mission in hopes of saving the aircraft. It worked, but the approaching winter likely means the end for the history-making helicopter. 

Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, a design we know from experience is robust enough to survive years on Mars. Ingenuity was a bit of a Hail Mary—NASA didn’t build it with hardened, space-tested components and advanced instruments. Ingenuity is composed of off-the-shelf hardware like a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor and conventional lithium-ion batteries. The goal was simply to see if a helicopter could work on Mars, and it turns out that it can—surprisingly well. 

As Perseverance was preparing to land on Mars, we talked to JPL’s Adam Steltzner, who said that the team did not expect Ingenuity to last long enough to impact the mission. However, more than a year later the helicopter has made 27 flights covering seven kilometers. Everything was going better than expected until May 3rd when Ingenuity dropped offline. The helicopter had been having issues with dust accumulating on its solar panels, and it lost power that night. The flight computer shut down, as did the heaters necessary to keep the batteries functional. 

The team hoped Ingenuity would wake up again when the sun rose on the red planet, but it didn’t. They theorized the issue was the internal clock, which needs to remain synchronized with Perseverance. The helicopter doesn’t have enough power to transmit back to Earth itself, so it connects to the rover. If the clocks don’t match, Ingenuity would try to talk to Perseverance when the rover was busy doing other things. Not wanting to lose Ingenuity, NASA decided to take a radical step; all of Perseverance’s science operations were suspended so it could just listen for Ingenuity’s call. 

Thankfully, the helicopter did connect again about 24 hours later. NASA reports that Ingenuity was able to recharge its batteries to 41 percent, and it should be ready to fly again in the coming days. These issues will only become more severe as time goes on, though. Mars is heading into winter, and the frigid nighttime temperatures of -195 degrees Fahrenheit (-125 degrees Celsius) will most likely prove too much for the robot’s meager power reserves.

Going forward, Ingenuity will only power on its heaters when the temperature hits -40 degrees Fahrenheit (and Celsius). That should give Ingenuity a little more time before the end, but even in death, this interplanetary aircraft has changed the way we explore Mars.

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