The Mars helicopter "Ingenuity" will have to rotate its rotor blades even faster in the future - the air will become thinner. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/dpa
On Mars, the Nasa helicopter "Ingenuity" involuntarily plays "hide and seek" with its terrestrial team. This could continue.
Pasadena – The Mars helicopter "Ingenuity" has been a pleasure for the US space agency Nasa for a long time – the planned five flights on the red planet have long since become ten times as many. But slowly, some worry mixes into the joy: How long will "Ingenuity" last? Just recently, the small helicopter could not be reached for six Martian days (equivalent to about six Earth days and six hours). After the 49th flight of "Ingenuity" on Mars, the team that looks after the helicopter lost contact – which did not worry those responsible at first, as chief engineer Travis Brown explains in a long update on the mission website.
Since the helicopter went into "hibernation" on Mars due to severe cold, the team on Earth has had a hard time predicting when the helicopter will "wake up" and be responsive – one reason why there was no concern about "Ingenuity" at first. According to Brown, "The team has spent a significant number of Sols over the past few weeks losing, searching, and retrieving the helicopter." In addition, the rover "Perseverance", with which the helicopter had traveled to Mars and which serves as a communication relay with Earth, had moved behind a rock and thus created a "communication shadow", as Brown writes.
Worries about NASA helicopter "Ingenuity" on Mars
But when the rover left this shadow again, the helicopter remained untraceable – "the situation began to create a certain discomfort," writes the chief engineer and continues: "In the more than 700 sols we spent with the helicopter on Mars, we had not once experienced a total radio failure. Even in the worst communication environments, we had always seen some sign of activity." The search for the helicopter continued – and almost a week after the last contact, there was a reaction from "Ingenuity". A short radio signal showed that the helicopter was active. At the same time the following day, the signal was given again – "a welcome relief for the team," reports Brown.
But the next problem was already looming: The rover "Perseverance" moved quickly towards the helicopter – and ran the risk of getting closer than 45 meters to it. This would be a problem because there is a no-fly zone within a radius of 45 meters around the rover to protect "Perseverance". That's why the helicopter team put all their eggs in one basket and sent "Ingenuity" a new flight plan. And indeed, the helicopter woke up and made its 50th flight on Mars: 300 meters wide and 18 meters high. He had never flown so high before. In the meantime, the rover had come within 80 meters of the helicopter – so it was extremely close. As Brown puts it, "It would be an understatement to say that the helicopter team was relieved."
Situation for helicopter "Ingenuity" will not change on Mars
The situation for the helicopter will apparently not change on Mars for the time being, although the Martian summer is slowly returning. "The dust covering our solar panel means that 'Ingenuity' is likely to remain in this temporary energy state for some time," says Brown, adding, "This means that – much to the chagrin of the team – we are not yet done with the game of hide-and-seek with our playful little helicopter."
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Originally, "Ingenuity" was planned as a technology demonstration: the helicopter was intended to prove that the motorized, controlled flight of a rotorcraft is possible in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere. Up to five test flights within 30 Martian days were planned. The first flight took place on April 19, 2021 – so the helicopter has lasted more than two years so far and has been helping the "Perseverance" rover for quite some time by exploring the terrain into which the rover is to go. After the great success of the helicopter, NASA has already decided that two helicopters should participate in a return mission of soil samples from Mars. (tab)