NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has resumed exchanging signals with the miniature Martian Ingenuity helicopter. This happened on May 5, and later the information was released by representatives of the space department. According to experts, the high level of dust in the atmosphere, combined with low temperatures at the site, caused communication disruptions.
Probably for this reason, the solar-powered Ingenuity was unable to maintain contact with the base station, the Perseverance rover, which is sending data from a helicopter to Earth via a satellite orbiting Mars.
According to JPL, the lack of light made it impossible to charge the helicopter’s six lithium-ion batteries, leading to the shutdown of the so-called. Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA).
Management recently approved Ingenuity’s continued operations through at least the end of September with 28 flights to date. The small helicopter has already done more than expected – at the time of landing on Mars in February 2021, only 5 missions were planned. Last September, the helicopter’s rotor speed was increased to take into account the seasonal decrease in atmospheric density in the area of operations.
So far everything is going according to plan. In total, the helicopter flew 6.9km and is now being used for reconnaissance ahead of the next cycle of Perseverance activity – the rover exploring an ancient dry river delta looking for potential signs of life. Recently, a mini-copter even took valuable pictures of the developed Perseverance landing system – scientists can use it to plan future missions. However, it remains active much longer than expected, and natural phenomena such as dust storms affect its performance.
The FPGA module is critical to the helicopter’s performance, controlling the power output for the avionics and heaters to keep Ingenuity running during the cold Martian nights. He is also responsible for keeping track of time, which is crucial for timely communication with Perseverance, for example. Scientists speculate that after a power outage on Martian night, the FPGA restarted, time settings were reset, and the heaters were turned off. After the sun came up and charged the batteries, the clock was out of sync with the rover’s clock – when the helicopter “thought” it was time to contact the base, it wasn’t set to receive.
To solve the problem, engineers ordered the rover to wait the entire Martian day on May 5 for a signal, and at 11:45 local Martian time, the signal from the helicopter was actually registered. Although the helicopter was underpowered, it could be determined that the main systems of the device were in order.
Dust remains one of the main problems – it doesn’t allow batteries to charge as fast as we would like to maintain 24/7 operation. To keep Ingenuity running, JPL says the heater will now only turn on when the temperature drops to -40 degrees Celsius (up from -15 before) and take other measures to conserve battery power. As a result, the helicopter’s batteries can be charged sufficiently to resume normal operations.
There remains a risk that Ingenuity will not withstand the temperature stresses – in this area the temperature drops to -80 degrees Celsius. However, scientists note that the helicopter has already fulfilled the initial plan – it was expected to remain operational for at least 30 Martian days, and this figure has long been reached.