The Ingenuity helicopter continues to explore the landscape around Jezero Crater on Mars, now more than 800 days into its original 30-day demonstration mission. Recently, Ingenuity completed its 54th flight on the Red Planet. However, things haven’t gone exactly to plan the past several weeks.
On its 53rd fight on July 22, 2023, the helicopter cut the flight short after one of its warnings was triggered, implementing the “LAND_NOW” protocol. Ingenuity should have flown for 136 seconds but was only in the air for 74 seconds before performing an emergency landing.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA-JPL) are busy keeping the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter functioning in Jezero Crater on Mars while these robotic explorers continue the search for ancient microbial life on the Red Planet. But some of those same engineers have also been busy working with LEGO designers on new one-tenth-scale LEGO Technic buildable models of these very same robotic explorers with the goal of inspiring the next generation of NASA scientists and engineers.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars has exceeded everyone’s expectations, recently completing its 51st flight when it was supposed to fly just a few times as a demonstration mission. But flights 50 and 51 almost didn’t happen.
In a recent blog post, Travis Brown, Chief Engineer for Ingenuity shared how the team lost contact with the tiny rotorcraft for six excruciating days.
One of the most iconic events in history is Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface. During the descent, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin are heard relaying commands and data back and forth to mission control across 385,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) of outer space as the lunar module “Eagle” slowly inched its way into the history books.
In the final moments before touchdown, Aldrin can be heard saying, “Picking up some dust”, followed by large dust clouds shooting outward from underneath from the spacecraft as the exhaust plumes interacted with the lunar surface, more commonly known as brownout or brownout effect. This significantly reduced the visibility for Armstrong and Aldrin as they landed, and while they successfully touched down on the Moon, future astronauts might not be so lucky.
Exploring Mars is hazardous work. Robotic missions that are sent there have to contend with extreme temperatures, dust storms, intermittent sunlight, and rough terrain. In recent years, two robotic missions were lost due to dust alone, and all that roving around has done a number on the Curiosity rover’s treads. It’s understandable why mission teams are pleasantly surprised when their missions make it through a rough patch. This was the case with the Ingenuity team when they discovered that the rotorcraft, which has been exploring Mars alongside Perseverance, survived the night and is back in working order.
Testing how robotic helicopters fair in the Martian environment is one of the objectives of Ingenuity, which is the first mission of its kind on Mars. On May 3rd, 2022, the mission team learned that Ingenuity had lost power after trying to keep itself warm during the cold Martian night. Luckily, there was enough sunlight the following morning for the little rotorcraft to power up its batteries again and resume normal operations. This was a welcome relief, given that the Opportunity rover and InSight lander were both lost to the extreme cold and dust that characterize a Martian winter.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Mars has a “dust problem.” The surface of the Red Planet is covered in particulate matter consisting of tiny bits of silica and oxidized minerals. During a Martian summer in the southern hemisphere, the planet experiences dust storms that can grow to encompass the entire planet. At other times of the year, dust devils and dusty skies are a persistent problem. This hazard has claimed robotic explorers that rely on solar panels to charge their batteries, like NASA’s Opportunityrover and the InSightlander, which ended their missions in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
Martian dust has also been a persistent challenge for the Ingenuity helicopter, the rotorcraft that has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover since February 2021. Luckily, the way it has kicked up dust has provided vital data that could prove invaluable for rotorcraft sent to explore other extraterrestrial environments in the future. Using this data, a team of researchers (with support from NASA) has completed the first real-world study of Martian dust dynamics, which will support missions to Mars and Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) in this and the next decade.
Even though there’s no firm date for a Mars sample return mission, the Perseverance rover is busy collecting rock samples and caching them for retrieval. We’ve known of the future Mars sample return mission for a while now, and as time goes on, we’re learning more details.
The latest development concerns helicopters. With Ingenuity’s success, NASA has decided that the sample return mission will take two helicopters.
We hope this is just as inconsequential as having a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, but images from the Ingenuity helicopter show it had a piece of debris fluttering from its leg during its most recent flight. A blog post from NASA said a small piece of foreign object debris (FOD) was seen in footage from the Mars helicopter’s navigation camera (Navcam) for a portion of its 33rd flight on September 24, 2022.
NASA’s upcoming Mars Sample Return mission plan just received a glow-up: it will now carry a pair of twin helicopters, each capable of retrieving samples and delivering them to the ascent vehicle for return to Earth.