Ingenuity “hunkering down” during Martian dust storms and winter

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WASHINGTON — Dust storms and changing seasons will limit the ability of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter to fly for the next several months, a project engineer said May 27.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released May 27 a video compiled from images taken by Ingenuity on a record-setting flight April 8. On that flight, the helicopter traveled 704 meters at a speed of 5.5 meters per second, the longest and fastest flight yet for the tiny helicopter.

That flight was the 25th for Ingenuity, which was originally intended to perform no more than five flights over the course of a few weeks in April 2021. The helicopter’s most recent flight, and the 28th overall, was April 29.

Ingenuity, though, lost communications with the Perseverance rover, which serves as a relay between the helicopter and controllers back on Earth, on May 3. Contact was reestablished two days later, with engineers concluding that the rover had gone into a “low-power state” when its battery levels dropped below a lower limit.

In a May 6 statement, JPL said that increased dust in the atmosphere was blocking sunlight, reducing the power Ingenuity’s solar panels could generate. The lab said it was taking steps to reduce the helicopter’s battery usage, such as reducing the temperature at which the helicopter turns on heaters.

“We are hopeful that we can accumulate battery charge in order to return to nominal operations and continue our mission into the weeks ahead,” Teddy Tzanetos, team lead for Ingenuity at JPL, said in the May 6 statement. In the May 27 release of the flight video, JPL said only that “the team is looking forward to its next flight on Mars.”

“Currently we’re going through the worst of the Martian dust storm season. The skies are full of dust and our solar array generation is way down,” said Jaakko Karras, chief engineer for Ingenuity, after a May 27 presentation at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference. However, he said Ingenuity is now heading into winter, with less solar power and colder temperatures.

“The hope is that, if we can make it through both of those,” he said, referring to the dust storms and winter, “in a handful of months we’ll start getting back into Martian spring where we get very energy positive again and back to business.”

That will limit the ability of Ingenuity to continue flying. Karras said there may be tweaks the mission can do, like parking the helicopter on an incline to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the arrays, an approach previously used for solar-powered rovers like Spirit and Opportunity. However, he noted it may be difficult to land the helicopter on the right incline. For now, the helicopter is “mostly hunkering down,” he said.

He didn’t saw how long it would be before Ingenuity will fly again and how frequently. “It will certainly be at least a couple of months before we’re back to the more luxurious energy levels that we’re used to,” he said.

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