NASA’s Mars Helicopter is somehow still flying and playing hide and seek

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

Lost somewhere in the rolling terrain of a Martian river was Ingenuity, the diminutive and surprisingly rugged helicopter that had just completed its 49th flight to the Red Planet. The team searched every day for a radio signal that could confirm the aircraft was okay.

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On April 2, Ingenuity soared 52 feet into the Martian sky — a record height for the drone — to take a suborbital photo of the Martian landscape.

After landing, he disappeared. When the scientists attempted to upload instructions for a later flight, Ingenuity’s radio signal was gone.

Scientists finally located Ingenuity after six days of searching as the helicopter’s companion to Mars, the Perseverance rover, passed a ridge and approached where the helicopter had landed.

NASA engineer Travis Brown described the incident in a blog post last week, offering a dramatic look at the agency’s exploration of Mars and the incredible resilience of the Ingenuity helicopter. Its ruggedness continues to surprise NASA two years after scientists expected the tiny craft to break up.

The helicopter is flying again, Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos told the Washington Post, and its longevity has inspired the team to include helicopters modeled after it in a future mission to Mars, a testament to how much Ingenuity has proved robust.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Tzanetos said. “This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”

Ingenuity defied the odds the day it first took off from Martian soil. The four-pound plane stands about 19 inches tall and is little more than an avionics box with four spindly legs on one end and two rotor blades and a solar array on the other. But he made the first powered flight of an airplane to another planet — what NASA has called a “Wright Brothers moment” — after arriving on Mars in April 2021.

However, Ingenuity was never meant to be more than an $80 million proof of concept. He hitchhiked to Mars in Perseverance, an SUV-sized rover that would carry out a NASA-planned mission to study the Martian soil.

Ingenuity, controlled via radio signals transmitted by Perseverance, completed its five-flight mission – a simple series to demonstrate that the helicopter design would work in the thin Martian atmosphere – in May 2021. Then, Tzanetos’ team received the l approval to continue flying.

“At that point, we’re on loan time,” said Tzanetos. “None of the mechanisms were designed to survive longer.”

Somehow, they did – for months and months and dozens of other flights. By May 2022, it looked like the miraculous story of Ingenuity would finally come crashing down to (Martian) earth. Winter was coming, and NASA feared that lower temperatures would cause Ingenuity’s solar-charged batteries to fail or even 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 weren’t sure it would fly again.

Incredibly, Ingenuity’s delicate parts withstood the Martian cold. But NASA still faced the challenge of reconnecting with the helicopter whenever its components jammed, Tzanetos said. The Ingenuity team adapted by using data from Martian sunrises to calculate when the helicopter would thaw each morning and regain enough charge to ignite.

The result? A sort of hide-and-seek game, in which NASA sent Ingenuity on flights, then used its model to calculate when the helicopter would come back online to receive its next instructions. It was enough to get Ingenuity and her cunning mission team through the Martian winter.

“We still have to play some of these games every once in a while, depending on how cold or windy it is during the night,” Tzanetos said. “But the team has gotten very good at it.”

NASA got into its most nerve-wracking game of hide-and-seek with Ingenuity in April after Flight 49, as the helicopter accompanied Perseverance over rugged terrain thought to be a century-old river delta.

Team members weren’t concerned when they couldn’t connect with the helicopter in the first few days after the flight, Brown wrote; their process sometimes took several days to find Ingenuity. But their fears grew as nearly a week passed. Tzanetos wondered if the brave helicopter’s luck had finally run out.

“Everything is fine [day] it’s a blessing” for Ingenuity, said Tzanetos. “You are always prepared for the end of the mission.”

Finally, six Martian days after losing contact with Ingenuity, the team detected a “single lone radio signal,” Brown wrote. The next day, another sign appeared – confirmation that Ingenuity survived. The team eventually concluded that a ridge had prevented the helicopter’s signals from reaching the rover.

Ingenuity flew again for the 50th time on April 13, flying approximately 59 feet high to once again break her own altitude record.

Tzanetos said the team will continue to push the limits of Ingenuity. While Perseverance continues with its assignment of collecting Martian soil samples, Ingenuity is free to roam the skies ahead of the rover as an explorer, collecting treasure troves of valuable data about the Red Planet and its own performance as Mars’ first aircraft.

And Ingenuity probably won’t be the last. In 2028, NASA plans to send a lander to Mars to recover samples collected by Perseverance. The craft would then be launched from Mars — another astronomical first for the agency — and return the samples to Earth for study.

That mission was redesigned in the wake of Ingenuity’s success, Tzanetos said. NASA now plans to send two helicopters of a nearly identical design with the lander as backup to recover Perseverance samples in case the rover fails before the lander arrives in the 2030s.

Ingenuity is unlikely to fly again by then. But for now, the brave chopper refuses to die.

“Two years ago, if you asked me what I hope will become of Ingenuity, I would have replied, ‘Well, I hope our children or our grandchildren can build on that,'” Tzanetos said. “…Here we are, Ingenuity is still flying and we are planning the second generation.”

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