NASA’s Indefatigable Mars Helicopter Plays Hide and Seek With Ingenuity

For about a week in April, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory frantically searched for signs of life on Mars.

The pint-sized, surprisingly robust helicopter that completed its 49th flight to Mars is lost somewhere in the undulating terrain of the Martian basin. Every day the crew looked for a radio signal confirming the plane was okay.

On April 2, Intelligence soared 52 feet into the Martian sky — a record height for a drone — to take complementary photos of the Martian landscape.

After landing, it disappeared. As the scientists attempted to upload instructions for the subsequent flight, Ingenuity’s radio signal was lost.

After a six-day search by the Perseverance rover, accompanied by a helicopter on Mars, scientists finally located the intelligence, a mountainous ridge and passed near where the helicopter landed.

NASA engineer Travis Browne described the episode Blog Last week, the agency offered a dramatic look at the agency’s exploration of Mars and the Ingenuity helicopter’s incredible resilience. The small craft’s toughness surprises NASA two years after scientists expected it to break up.

The helicopter is flying again, Ingenuity team leader Teddy Chanedos told The Washington Post, and its longevity has encouraged the team to include helicopters on future Mars missions — proving how resilient Ingenuity is.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Tzanetos said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Intelligence defied the odds on the day it was first lifted off the Martian soil. The four-pound plane is about 19 inches tall and is little more than an avionics box with four spinner legs at one end and two rotor blades and a solar panel. But after arriving at Mars in April 2021, NASA heralded a “Wright brothers moment” — the first powered flight by a spacecraft on another planet.

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NASA helicopter flies to Mars, first time a plane has flown on another planet

However, ingenuity should not be the source of an $80 million-plus concept. It rode to Mars with Perseverance, an SUV-sized rover intended by NASA to study the Martian soil.

Ingenuity, controlled by radio signals broadcast from Perseverance, completed its five-flight mission — a simple series to prove the helicopter’s design would work in the thin Martian atmosphere — and in May 2021, the Tzanetos team received permission to continue flying.

“At that point, we’re on borrowed time,” Tzanetos said. “No machine is designed to last longer than that.”

Somehow, they did—months and months, and dozens of flights. By May 2022, it seemed that the miracle story of intelligence would finally fall below Earth (Mars). Winter set, and NASA feared that the low temperatures would cause Ingenuity’s solar-charged batteries to malfunction or freeze overnight.

The helicopter entered a low-power state after its 28th flight in late April of that year, and scientists told The Post they were unsure if it would ever fly again.

NASA’s Mars helicopter will fly five times. 28 flew.

Incredibly, the delicate parts of the intelligence stood up against the Martian cold. But NASA faced the challenge of reassembling the helicopter every time its components froze, Tzanetos said. Using data on Martian sunrises, the Ingenuity team adjusted each morning to calculate when the helicopter would have enough charge to thaw out and run again.

The result? It’s a kind of hide-and-seek game that NASA sent intelligence on planes to use its model to calculate when the helicopter would come back online to receive its next instructions. Ingenuity and cunning were enough to get his mission team through the Martian winter.

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“We still have to play some of these games sometimes, depending on how cold it is or how windy it is overnight,” Tzanetos said. “But the team is very good at it.”

After Flight 49 in April, NASA entered a clever game of hide-and-seek as the helicopter Perseverance navigated the flat terrain long thought to be an ancient river delta.

No team members Worry when they do Unable to connect to the helicopter for the first few days after the flight, Brown wrote; Their process sometimes takes days to invent. But as about a week passed, their fears grew. Zanetos wondered if the rusty helicopter’s luck had finally run out.

“Each [day] A blessing in disguise, Tzanetos said. “You are always ready for the end of the mission.”

Finally, six Mars days after losing contact with Intelligence, the team detected a “single, lonely” radio signal, Brown wrote. The next day, another signal appeared – confirming that the ingenuity lived. The team eventually concluded that a ridge prevented the helicopter’s signals from reaching the rover.

Intelligence flew again for the 50th time on April 13, climbing about 59 feet to break its altitude record again.

Tzanetos said the team will continue to push Ingenuity’s limits. While Diligence continues its mission of collecting Martian soil samples, Intelligence roams the skies ahead of the rover as a scout, gathering valuable data about the Red Planet and its own performance as the first mission to Mars.

And ingenuity probably won’t last. In 2028, NASA plans to send Lander to Mars to retrieve samples diligently collected. Craft later launch Beyond Mars — another astronomical first for the agency — and return samples to Earth for study.

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That mission has been redesigned in the wake of Ingenuity’s success, Tzanetos said. NASA is now planning to send Two helicopters An almost identical design to the lander for recovery of Perseverance samples if the rover wears out by the time the lander arrives in 2030.

It is unlikely that intelligence was flying by then. But for now, the rusty helicopter refuses to die.

“Two years ago, if you asked me what the genius would be, I’d say, ‘Well, I hope our children or our grandchildren can build this,'” Zanetos said. “… here we are, wits still flying, we’re shaping the second generation.”

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