It’s hard to overstate the importance of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is just beginning its exploration of the Red Planet. This robot is bristling with advanced instruments that could help reveal evidence of past Martian life, but that was almost overshadowed by a simple tech demonstration that accompanied the ride. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter exceeded all expectations, but its days could be numbered. Following a recent power problem, NASA suspended the rover’s mission in hopes of saving the plane. It worked, but the approaching winter probably means the end of the historic helicopter.
Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, a design that we know from experience is tough enough to survive years on Mars. The ingenuity was a bit of a Hail Mary — NASA didn’t build it with hardened, space-tested components and advanced instruments. Ingenuity is comprised of off-the-shelf hardware like 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 turns out it can, surprisingly well.
As Perseverance prepared to land on Mars, we spoke to JPL’s Adam Steltzner, who said the team didn’t expect Ingenuity to last long enough to impact 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 went offline. The helicopter had problems with dust accumulation on its solar panels and it lost power that night. The flight computer shut down, as did the heaters needed to keep the batteries functional.
The team hoped Ingenuity would wake up again when the sun rose on the Red Planet, but it didn’t. They hypothesized that the problem was the internal clock, which needs to stay in sync with perseverance. The helicopter doesn’t have enough power to transmit to Earth itself, so it connects to the rover. If the clocks don’t match, Ingenuity would try to talk to Perseverance when the rover was busy doing other things. Not wanting to lose Ingenuity, NASA decided to take a drastic step; all of Perseverance’s science operations were suspended so he could simply listen to Ingenuity’s call.
Fortunately, the helicopter reconnected about 24 hours later. NASA reports that Ingenuity was able to recharge its batteries to 41% and should be ready to fly again in the next few days. However, these problems will only get worse over time. Mars is heading into winter, and freezing nighttime temperatures of -195 degrees Fahrenheit (-125 degrees Celsius) will likely prove too much for the robot’s meager reserves of power.
Going forward, Ingenuity will only turn on its heaters when the temperature drops to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (and Celsius). That should give Ingenuity a bit more time before the end, but even in death, this interplanetary plane changed the way we explore Mars.