Mars helicopter Ingenuity fights for survival

The spectacular Mars helicopter Ingenuity may be coming to an end. He is threatened with a lack of electricity and cold death.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity may be nearing its end. As NASA reports, Ingenuity lost contact with the Mars rover Perseverance on May 3rd. That was the first disconnect since the mini-helicopter began operations on Mars on April 19, 2021.

On May 5, 2022, Perseverance was able to reconnect with Ingenuity. Ingenuity requires Perseverance as a relay station for communications with Earth. The mini-helicopter receives its commands from Earth via the Mars rover and in turn sends its data back to Earth.

Analysis of the data revealed that Ingenuity’s six lithium-ion batteries were too drained. The batteries are charged via solar cells, but due to the season – winter is about to begin on Mars – and the associated increasing amount of dust, the solar cells are able to generate less and less electricity. At the same time, it is getting colder and colder on Mars, so that the helicopter has to be heated up more and more in order to survive. This also drains the batteries. If the charge level of the batteries falls below a certain limit, the FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) switches off. FPGA controls, among other things, the communication between the helicopter and the Mars rover. The helicopter’s internal clock reset and no longer synchronized with the Mars rover’s internal clock. Due to the different clocks of the rover and the helicopter, they could no longer agree on a common time for communication.

The NASA ground station solved this problem by having the Mars rover continuously wait for Ingenuity to contact it. When the helicopter finally started contacting Perseverance again, Perseverance was ready and the connection could be restored.

The solar cells also charged and continue to charge the helicopter’s batteries. But the coming winter, with decreasing solar radiation and lower temperatures, poses special challenges for Ingenuity. So it could well be that Ingenuity will soon have to shut down due to increasing sandstorms and ever-depleting batteries – forever. Although the NASA scientists have developed an emergency plan to save electricity, it remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient. This is because saving electricity comes at the expense of heating – the helicopter now has to withstand greater cold.

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