After 63 days of agonizing silence, NASA’s Martian chopper finally phoned home.
The Ingenuity helicopter reestablished communication with mission control on June 28, officially logging its 52nd flight as a success, NASA recently announced. The space agency lost contact with Ingenuity as the helicopter was descending towards the surface of the Red Planet following its most recent flight on April 26.
The reason behind the communication drop was that a hill was inconveniently positioned between Ingenuity and its rover pal Perseverance, preventing the Martian pair from communicating with one another. Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to deliver its messages to Earth, using shiny antennas to exchange data at about 100 kilobits per second. The data is routed from the Ingenuity-facing antenna to the rover’s main computer before being transferred to Earth by way of an orbiting spacecraft.
“The portion of Jezero Crater the rover and helicopter are currently exploring has a lot of rugged terrain, which makes communications dropouts more likely,” Josh Anderson, the Ingenuity team lead, said in the NASA statement. The helicopter is often ahead of Perseverance to help the rover survey the Martian terrain, causing Ingenuity to sometimes go out of communications range.
Since the downlink was disrupted over two months ago, NASA mission control has been waiting on the results of Ingenuity’s flight. The goal of the 52nd flight was to reposition the helicopter and capture images of Mars’ surface for the rover’s science team, according to NASA. During its flight, Ingenuity reached an altitude of 1,191 feet above the surface for a total of 139 seconds.
Ingenuity’s team is currently running through the helicopter’s health checks to make sure it’s fit for another flight within the next couple of weeks, the space agency stated. Flight 53 will be used as an interim airfield to the west of where the rover and its helicopter are located. From there, the team wants to perform another westward flight to a new location near a rocky outcrop that the rover is looking to explore.
NASA has had communication issues with Ingenuity before, but the helicopter is still doing pretty well considering it was designed to last for a 30-day technology demonstration. Ingenuity landed on Mars in February 2021, tucked inside the Perseverance rover. On April 19, 2021, the 19-inch tall (48 cm), 4-pound helicopter became the first powered aircraft to lift off from the surface of another planet. More than two years later, the Mars helicopter has fully outgrown its testing phase, becoming a handy sidekick to its rover companion.
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