The Ingenuity helicopter paved new ground (air?) in April 2019, when it communicated data of its first flight—the first powered, controlled flight on another planet—to NASA scientists on Earth.
But recently, NASA scientists have only received transmissions from the helicopter intermittently and unpredictably. The communication breakdown is making it difficult for the Ingenuity team to guide the craft around the Martian landscape—and ironically, it was that very landscape that caused the NASA team to lose contact with the helicopter.
According to a status update written by Travis Brown, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, the communication problems started in earnest following Ingenuity’s 49th flight on April 2, 2023, which set records for the rotorcraft’s height and airspeed.
Following downlink of data from its 49th flight, the Ingenuity team failed to uplink instructions for the rotocraft’s next flight.
But the issues with Ingenuity’s communication go back farther, Brown wrote. Shortly after the rotorcraft’s 40th flight in January 2023, Ingenuity began struggling with “brownouts”—periods in which the chopper would slip into its low-power mode, which keeps the craft alive during harsh winter nights on Mars. Last year, a cold-induced low power state gave NASA engineers a similar scare about the helicopter’s survivability.
It became difficult to predict when Ingenuity would wake from these brownouts, in turn making it difficult for the team to coordinate the rotorcraft’s flights. All the while, the Perseverance rover has been continuing its procession across Jezero Crater’s western rim, investigating a dried-up river delta for areas of geological and astrobiological interest.
Currently, the Jezero region is leaving winter behind, which the Ingenuity team expects will mean less episodes of extreme cold for the rotorcraft.
On Sol 755, the team once again lost contact with the helicopter and there was silence for the next week (a Sol on Mars, or a single Martian day, is roughly 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds long). The team began to consider the possibility that Ingenuity had died. “In more than 700 sols operating the helicopter on Mars, not once had we ever experienced a total radio blackout,” Brown said in the blog post. But on Sols 761 and 762, singular radio pings confirmed the spunky space helicopter persisted.
The team determined that a Martian ridge between Perseverance and Ingenuity was obstructing communications from the helicopter. Since Ingenuity has transitioned from a tech demo of flight on other worlds to a scout for Perseverance, which is charged with investigating the Jezero Delta, the helicopter has generally stayed in front of the rover’s projected path. But Ingenuity must be kept both within range and also safely away from the Perseverance rover, the real star of the Mars 2020 program.
That made flight 50 a close shave for the helicopter team. They managed to uplink flight instructions to the rover as Perseverance approached it, getting to within 262 feet (80 meters) of the helicopter.
Brown noted that dust on the helicopter’s solar panels means the cat-and-mouse game may persist, as Ingenuity may struggle to get power. But winter fading in Ingenuity’s rearview may mitigate the situation.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ingenuity helicopter was “ghosting” scientists, and the problem could get worse. The communication breakdown was due to a Martian ridge obstructing the line of sight between Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover. As long as the NASA team avoids such formations in the future, Ingenuity should communicate with the team more regularly.