The Ingenuity Helicopter, which has emerged as the biggest asset on a foreign planet, gave engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a brief heart attack when it missed a planned communications session with its accomplice, the Perseverance rover.
This was the first such event when the rover missed a communications check with the rover since its arrival on Mars over a year ago. The communication check is critical since the helicopter relies on the rover to send its findings to its masters on Earth.
“Ingenuity relies on Perseverance as the base station that enables it to send data to and receive commands from Earth,” JPL said in a statement. The helicopter has been extremely effective in aiding the rover’s search for ancient microbial life on the alien planet.
WHY DID INGENUITY LOSE COMMUNICATION?
The Ingenuity team at the JPL has identified the reason behind the drop in communication between the helicopter and the rover. Based on the latest data beamed back to Earth, the team found that the communications dropout on May 3, Sol 427 of the Perseverance rover’s mission to Mars, was a result of the solar-powered helicopter entering a low-power state.
The low power was due to the seasonal increase in the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere and lower temperatures as winter approaches. “The dust diminishes the amount of sunlight hitting the solar array, reducing Ingenuity’s ability to recharge its six lithium-ion batteries. When the battery pack’s state of charge dropped below a lower limit, the helicopter’s field-programmable gate array (FPGA) was powered down,” JPL said in an update.
When the FPGA lost power during the Martian night, the helicopter’s onboard clock which designates the time that communications with Perseverance occur reset. And Ingenuity’s heaters, so vital to keeping electronics and other components within operational temperatures turned off. When the sun rose the next morning and the solar array began to charge the batteries, the helicopter’s clock was no longer in sync with the clock aboard the rover. Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance, the rover’s base station wasn’t listening.
To ensure that the next time the helicopter pings, the rover listens, engineers dedicated an entire day of activity towards it. And the helicopter called on May 5.
“The data transmitted was limited to deliberately preserving the battery charge, but the helicopter’s critical health and safety data were nominal. The radio link between Ingenuity and Perseverance was stable, spacecraft temperatures were within expectations, the solar array was recharging the battery at a rate expected for this season, and the battery was healthy, containing 41% of a full charge,” JPL said.
The Ingenuity team is now working round the clock to ensure the health of the helicopter as Martian winter approaches. “We have always known that Martian winter and dust storm season would present new challenges for Ingenuity, specifically colder sols, an increase in atmospheric dust, and more frequent dust storms. Every flight and every mile of distance flown beyond our original 30-sol mission has pushed the spacecraft to its limits each and every sol on Mars,” Ingenuity Team Lead Teddy Tzanetos said.
Designed to perform up to five experimental test flights over a span of 30 Martian days (sols), or close to 31 Earth days, the rotorcraft has flown over 6.9 kilometers across 28 sorties and operated from the surface of the Red Planet for over a year.