Ingenuity, NASA is autonomous Mars helicopter, was only intended to complete five flights. But since its historic first flight in April 2021, the helicopter has flown 28 times, and preparations are underway for the 29th. Depending on dust levels and the schedule of the rover Perseverance, that flight could take place as soon as later this week. But now Ingenuity is facing a new challenge: It is unclear whether the helicopter will survive the coming March winter, which begins in July.
Since a Mars year is about two years on Earth, and the helicopter is in the northern hemisphere, it is the first winter of Ingenuity. As the solstice approaches, days become shorter and nights longer, and dust storms can occur more frequently. This all means less sunlight for the solar panels mounted above the helicopter’s twin 4-foot rotor blades. Dust on solar panels recently marked the end of operations for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and the effects of cold on electronics presumably played a role in the end of the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rover missions.
“We believe it’s survivable,” Dave Lavery, NASA’s 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 (Mars day) can be the last of ingenuity.”
Last month, Ingenuity briefly lost contact with the earth due to a decline in battery life, the majority of which was devoted to heating. NASA has re-established contact with Ingenuity after two days, but due to battery levels falling below 70 percent and persistently lower temperatures, Ingenuity will stop using onboard heaters at night to conserve power during the four-month-long winter. Heaters usually kick in when the temperature drops below -5 Fahrenheit, a figure that has been reduced to -40 after the battery shortage and communication outage last month. Outdoor temperatures during the Mars winter can drop to -112 at night, increasing the likelihood of damage to electronics inside the helicopter.
NASA on Monday announced the failure of a sensor, which delays flight 29 and requires NASA to connect a software patch and rely on another sensor to control Ingenuity’s navigation algorithms.
Dust storms are an X factor. A study published in May by a team at the University of Houston examined data from NASA sensors over the span of four Mars years and found that imbalances in solar energy and hot weather in the south increased the likelihood of massive dust storms which can cover the blanket raises whole planet. Spring and summer are known as storm seasons, but the likelihood of severe storms decreases as the north approaches winter solstice, says Liming Li, an associate professor at the University of Houston. But there is a caveat: The study is worldwide and does not take into account a specific region. Conditions can also be different in craters than on the rest of the surface, and the helicopter operates in the 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 for the radiation budget in the Jezero crater before we really measure it.”
As Ingenuity stops normal flight activities, the team will focus on transferring data such as flight performance logs and high definition images of the last eight flights and making software upgrades. Based on a climate model, NASA expects solar energy levels to recover to a level that will allow the resumption of normal activity 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, looking for possible locations for the Perseverance rover to store and explore a collection of rock and soil samples scientists believe to be a river delta inside the Jezero crater.