Ingenuity, NASA’s 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 for the rover Perseverance, that flight could take place as soon as later this week. But now Ingenuity faces a new challenge: It is unclear whether the helicopter will survive the coming March winter, which begins in July.
Since a year of Mars equals about 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 longer, and dust storms can become more frequent. This all means less sunlight for the solar panels mounted above the helicopter’s double 4-foot rotor blades. Dust on solar panels recently marked the end of operations for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and the chilling effects on electronics are believed to have played a role in the end of the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rover missions.
“We believe it can survive,” 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 sun (March day) could be the last of Invention.”
Last month, Ingenuity briefly lost contact with Earth due to a decline in battery life, the majority of which is dedicated to warming. NASA re-established contact with Ingenuity after two days, but due to battery levels falling below 70 percent and persistently lower temperatures, Ingenuity will suspend the use of built-in heaters at night to maintain power through the four-month-long winter. Heaters typically start when the temperature drops below -5 Fahrenheit, a number reduced to -40 after battery shortage and communication failure last month. Outdoor temperatures during the March winter can drop to -112 at night, increasing the likelihood of damage to the electronics inside the helicopter.
On Monday, NASA announced the failure of a sensor delays flight 29 and requires NASA to uplink 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 from a team at the University of Houston examined data from NASA sensors over four Mars years and found that imbalances in solar energy and hot weather in the south increase the likelihood of massive dust storms covering the entire planet. Spring and summer are known as storm seasons, but the likelihood of severe storms is reduced as the north approaches the winter solstice, says University of Houston associate professor Liming Li. But there is a caveat: the survey 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 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 of the radiation budget in the Jezero crater before we really measure it.”
As Ingenuity stops 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 making software upgrades. Based on a climate model, NASA expects solar energy levels to return to a level that allows resumption of normal activity this fall. In September or October, if Ingenuity is able to regain the ability to heat its systems at night, it can resume regular flight operations and scout for potential locations for the Perseverance rover to store a collection of rock and soil samples and explore what scientists believe used to be a river delta within Jezero crater.