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14 May 2022, 4:34 pm

After 28 Flights, Is NASA's 'Ingenuity' Mars Helicopter Nearing the End of Its Life?

After 28 Flights, Is NASA's 'Ingenuity' Mars Helicopter Nearing the End of Its Life?

After traveling 300 miles on the underbelly of the Perseverance rover, the "Ingenuity" helicopter has made 28 different flights over the surface of Mars, reports the Washington Post, staying aloft for a total of nearly one hour, flying 4.3 miles with a maximum speed of 12.3 miles per hour and a top altitude of 39 feet. "It's traversed craters, taken photos of regions that would be hard to reach on the ground, and served as a surprisingly resilient scout that has adapted to the changing Martian atmosphere and survived its harsh dust storms and frigid nights. "Now the engineers and scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are worried that their four-pound, solar-powered drone on Mars, may be nearing the end of its life." Winter is setting in on Mars. The dust is kicking up, coating Ingenuity's solar panels and preventing it from fully charging its six lithium-ion batteries. This month, for the first time since it landed on Mars more than a year ago, Ingenuity missed a planned communications session with Perseverance, the Mars rover that it relies on to send data and receive commands from Earth. Will a dust-coated Ingenuity survive a Martian winter where temperatures routinely plunge below minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit? And if it doesn't, how should the world remember the little helicopter that cost $80 million to develop and more than five years to design and build? Those closest to the project say that as time winds down for Ingenuity, it's hard to overstate its achievements.... "We built it as an experiment," Lori Glaze, the director of NASA's planetary science division, told The Washington Post. "So it didn't necessarily have the flight-qualified parts that we use on the big missions like Perseverance." Some, such as components from smartphones, were even bought off-the-shelf, so "there were chances that they might not perform in the environment as we expected. And so there was a risk that it wasn't going to work.... What happened was, and this is really key, after Ingenuity performed so well on those first five flights, the science team from Perseverance came to us and said, 'You know what, we want this helicopter to keep operating to help us in our exploration and achieving our science goals,' " Glaze said. So NASA decided to keep flying.... On April 29, it took its last flight to date, No. 28, a quarter-of-a-mile jaunt that lasted two-and-a-half minutes. Now NASA wonders if that will be the last one. The space agency thinks the helicopter's inability to fully charge its batteries caused the helicopter to enter a low-power state. When it went dormant, the helicopter's onboard clock reset, the way household clocks do after a power outage. So the next day, as the sun rose and began to charge the batteries, the helicopter was out of sync with the rover: "Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance, the rover's base station wasn't listening," NASA wrote. Then NASA did something extraordinary: Mission controllers commanded Perseverance to spend almost all of May 5 listening for the helicopter. Finally, little Ingenuity phoned home. The radio link, NASA said, "was stable," the helicopter was healthy, and the battery was charging at 41 percent. But, as NASA warned, "one radio communications session does not mean Ingenuity is out of the woods. The increased (light-reducing) dust in the air means charging the helicopter's batteries to a level that would allow important components (like the clock and heaters) to remain energized through the night presents a significant challenge." Maybe Ingenuity will fly again. Maybe not. "At this point, I can't tell you what's going to happen next," Glaze said. "We're still working on trying to find a way to fly it again. But Perseverance is the primary mission, so that we need to start setting our expectations appropriately." For Ingenuity's "Wright Brothers moment" — when it flew for the first time on another planet — it was actually carrying a postage-sized bit of fabric from the Wright Brothers original 1903 aircraft.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.