Ingenuity, NASA’s autonomous Mars helicopter, was solely meant to finish 5 flights. However since its history-making first flight in April 2021, the helicopter has flown 28 occasions, and preparation is underway for the twenty ninth. Relying on mud ranges and the schedule of the rover Perseverance, that flight may happen as quickly as later this week. However now Ingenuity faces a brand new problem: It’s unclear if the helicopter will survive the approaching Martian winter, which begins in July.
Since a Martian 12 months quantities to roughly two years on Earth, and the helicopter is within the northern hemisphere, that is Ingenuity’s first winter. Because the solstice approaches, days are getting shorter and nights longer, and mud storms may develop into extra frequent. That every one means much less daylight for the photo voltaic panels mounted above the helicopter’s twin 4-foot rotor blades. Mud on photo voltaic panels recently spelled the end of operations for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and the consequences of chilly on electronics is believed to have performed a job in the long run of the Alternative and Spirit Mars rover missions.
“We consider it’s survivable,” Dave Lavery, NASA’s program government for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, informed WIRED, however “each additional day is a present.” JPL Ingenuity staff lead Teddy Tzanetos just lately wrote in a NASA blog post that “every sol (Martian day) may very well be Ingenuity’s final.”
Final month, Ingenuity briefly misplaced contact with Earth resulting from a decline in battery life, nearly all of which is devoted to heating. NASA reestablished contact with Ingenuity after two days, however resulting from battery ranges falling under 70 p.c and persistently decrease temperatures, Ingenuity will droop use of onboard heaters at night time to protect energy all through the four-month winter. Heaters usually kick in when the temperature falls under -5 Fahrenheit, a determine diminished to -40 after the battery energy scarcity and communications outage final month. Outside temperatures through the Martian winter can drop to -112 at night time, rising the chance of harm to electronics contained in the helicopter.
On Monday, NASA announced the failure of a sensor, delaying flight 29 and requiring NASA to uplink a software program patch and depend on one other sensor to control Ingenuity’s navigation algorithms.
Mud storms are an X issue. A examine published in Could from a staff on the College of Houston examined information from NASA sensors over the span of 4 Martian years, and located that imbalances in photo voltaic power and heat climate within the south improve the chance of large mud storms that may blanket your complete planet. Spring and summer season are generally known as storm seasons, however the chance of extreme storms reduces because the north approaches the winter solstice, says College of Houston affiliate professor Liming Li. However there’s a caveat: The examine is international and doesn’t keep in mind any specific area. Situations will also be completely different in craters than on the remainder of the floor, and the helicopter is working within the Jezero Crater.
“It’s robust to say,” Li mentioned when requested whether or not extra mud storms are on the way in which. “It’s laborious to offer a transparent image for the radiation finances within the Jezero Crater earlier than we actually measure it.”
As Ingenuity halts regular flight exercise, the staff will give attention to transferring information like flight efficiency logs and high-definition images from the final eight flights and making software program upgrades. Based mostly on a climate model, NASA expects photo voltaic power ranges to rebound to a stage that enables the resumption of regular exercise this fall. By September or October, if Ingenuity is ready to regain the flexibility to warmth its programs at night time, it may resume common flight operations, scouting potential locations for the Perseverance rover to stash a set of rock and soil samples and discover what scientists consider was a river delta inside the Jezero Crater.