NASA Lost Contact With its Ingenuity Helicopter Briefly, but it's Back

Imagine remotely flying a drone or small aircraft from a great distance and loosing contact with it during flight. You’d likely assume the worst, that your aircraft was probably laying in a crashed heap in some remote location.

That’s what engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory went through with the beloved Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, millions of miles away. During a recent quick pop-up flight that was supposed to last just 32 seconds, Ingenuity lost communications before it touched back down. The engineers back on Earth had no idea if the little helicopter landed safely or not.

Communications were lost on January 18 when the tiny autonomous rotorcraft was flown on a short vertical flight to test its systems after an unplanned early landing during its previous flight, NASA reported in a status update.

For some reason, the communications link was severed between Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover, which relays data between the helicopter and Earth during the flights. Data received showed that Ingenuity had climbed to its assigned maximum altitude of 12 meters (40 feet), but then the data link terminated early, prior to touchdown.

Ingenuity captured this image of Mars on December 2, 2023 (Sol 990) with its high-resolution color camera. The shadow of the helicopter can be seen near the center of the images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But thankfully, after engineers had worked around the clock, on late on January 20 communications were able to be reestablished between the helicopter and rover, with engineers able to determine the helicopter was “power-positive” and sitting upright on Mars.

The team is now running further diagnostic checks, and commanding Ingenuity to take photos of its location on the surface to help  pinpoint its location, and performing a spin test.

“Ginny is back in contact!,” JPL Director Laurie Leshin posted on X. “Thanks to our team for working the issue so quickly and effectively. Still need to understand more about what happened. After far more flights than anticipated, no matter what, the #MarsHelicopter has been an extraordinary success!”

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover. This image was taken by the WATSON camera on the rover’s robotic arm on April 6, 2021, the 46th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

JPL did say that during the flight, Perseverance was out of line-of-sight with Ingenuity, and after communications were lost, the team considered driving the rover closer for a visual inspection. They did use the rover “to perform long-duration listening sessions for Ingenuity’s signal.”

This was Ingenuity’s 72nd flight at the Red Planet – which is incredible given that only four flights were planned for the plucky little helicopter, the first aircraft to perform a powered, controlled extraterrestrial flight. But since becoming operational on April 19, 2021, it has blown away expectations, now completing 72 flights.

Ingenuity operates in a harsh environment that no aircraft has ever flown in before. Mars is extremely cold and dry, and Mars’ very thin atmosphere has only about 1% the density of Earth’s. The thin atmosphere makes lift more difficult to generate, although the gravity is weaker, which helps. There’s also the time delay in communications between Mars and Earth which adds a layer of complexity to every endeavor.

If we are practical, we realize that one day, Ingenuity will fly its last flight, never to be heard from again.

But that day is not today.