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After 63 days of silence, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is talking again.
The little chopper took to the Martian skies on April 26 for its 52nd flight but lost contact with mission controllers before landing — creating a monthslong communications blackout.
But Ingenuity phoned home again on June 28, relieving any potential concerns about the safety and whereabouts of the first aircraft on another world. That’s still a long time to humans here on Earth to wait for confirmation that Ingenuity landed safely.
The flight was intended to reposition the helicopter and capture images of the Martian surface.
The mission team anticipated that radio silence might occur.
That’s because Ingenuity communicates with mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, by relaying all messages through the Perseverance rover.
And when Ingenuity took off for flight 52, a hill presented an obstacle blocking the helicopter and rover from communicating with each other.
“The portion of Jezero Crater the rover and helicopter are currently exploring has a lot of rugged terrain, which makes communications dropouts more likely,” said Josh Anderson, the Ingenuity team lead at JPL, in a statement.
While the two robots make for a dynamic duo that can investigate Mars from the surface and its atmosphere in search of signs of ancient life, it’s difficult for them to stick close together.
Ingenuity’s role as aerial scout
Ingenuity began as a technology demonstration to test if a small rotorcraft could fly on Mars. After surpassing all expectations across five successful flights in the spring of 2021, Ingenuity transitioned to become an aerial scout, flying ahead of the Perseverance rover and plotting out safe and scientifically interesting pathways for the rover’s exploration.
Sometimes, Ingenuity is off exploring and taking images of sites that the rover may not reach for weeks.
Once Perseverance crested the obstructive hill, the helicopter and rover had a chance to communicate and relay Ingenuity’s messages back to Earth — including the data captured during its 139-second-long flight spanning 1,191 feet (363 meters) on April 26.
“The team’s goal is to keep Ingenuity ahead of Perseverance, which occasionally involves temporarily pushing beyond communication limits,” Anderson said.
“We’re excited to be back in communications range with Ingenuity and receive confirmation of Flight 52.”
What’s next for Ingenuity and Perseverance
It’s not the first time the mission team has experienced communication drops with Ingenuity that last an “agonizingly long time,” like the gaps that occurred before the helicopter’s historic 50th flight in April, according to Travis Brown, chief engineer for Ingenuity at JPL.
The chopper is also still contending with a buildup of dust on its solar panel that occurred during the Martian winter, causing the helicopter to experience a “transitional power state” that may endure even as Martian summer arrives.
“This means that, much to the chagrin of her team, we are not yet done playing this high-stakes game of hide and seek with the playful little helicopter,” Brown wrote in a NASA blog.
But Ingenuity has overcome landing on Mars, survived frigid nights, flying on Mars for the first time and numerous record-breaking flights since, and its journey to explore Mars like never before continues.
Hoping that the rest of Ingenuity’s system will appear to be in good shape, flight engineers are already planning another aerial excursion for the chopper in another couple weeks. Ingenuity’s next few flights will bring it closer to a rocky outcrop that NASA is keen for Perseverance to explore.
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