It is difficult to overestimate the importance of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is just beginning its study of the Red Planet. This robot is full of sophisticated tools that could help uncover evidence of past Martian life, but this was almost overshadowed by a simple demonstration of the technology that was on its way. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter exceeded all expectations, but its days may be numbered. After a recent power problem, NASA suspend the rover’s mission in hopes of rescuing the plane. It worked, but the approaching winter probably means the end of the helicopter that is making history.
Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, a design we know from experience that is sturdy enough to survive years on Mars. Ingenuity was like Hail Mary – NASA didn’t build it with hardened, space-tested components and sophisticated instruments. Ingenuity consists of ready-made hardware such as 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 turned out it could – surprisingly well.
As Perseverance prepared to land on Mars, we spoke with JPL’s Adam Stelzner, who said the team did not expect Ingenuity to last long enough to influence the mission. However, more than a year later, the helicopter made 27 flights covering seven kilometers. Everything was going better than expected until May 3, when Ingenuity dropped out of the network. The helicopter had problems accumulating dust on its solar panels and lost power tonight. The flight computer turned off, as did the heaters needed to keep the batteries running.
The team had hoped that Ingenuity would wake up again when the sun rose on the red planet, but that didn’t happen. They theorized that the problem was the internal clock, which should remain in sync with Perseverance. The helicopter does not have enough power to transmit back to Earth itself, so it connects to the rover. If the clocks don’t match, Ingenuity will try to talk to Perseverance when the rover is busy with other things. Not wanting to lose ingenuity, NASA decided to take a radical step; all of Perseverance’s scientific operations were terminated so he could just listen to Ingenuity’s call.
Fortunately, the helicopter reconnected about 24 hours later. NASA says Ingenuity has managed to recharge its batteries to 41 percent and should be ready to fly again in the coming days. However, these problems will become more serious over time. Mars is heading for winter, and cold night temperatures of -195 degrees Fahrenheit (-125 degrees Celsius) are likely to be too much for the robot’s meager power reserves.
In the future, Ingenuity will turn on its heaters only when the temperature reaches -40 degrees Fahrenheit (and Celsius). This should give Ingenuity a little more time before the end, but even after death, this interplanetary plane changed the way we explore Mars.