NASA lost its Martian helicopter for 15 minutes

NASA was very worried about its little protégé, who did not give any sign of life for fifteen interminable minutes.

On December 5, NASA organized the 17th flight of the Martian helicopter Ingenuity. The flight went well until the last phase of the flight; upon landing, the craft experienced a small blackout and gave no sign of life for 15 minutes under high voltage. According to the preliminary investigation, the aircraft would still have managed to land and would fortunately be intact and functional.

The incident occurred after a flight of 187 meters over a difficult to pass area. It is this configuration of the land which is at least in part at the origin of this communication cutoff. Indeed, Ingenuity does not have its own system of communication with Earth; it first addresses Perseverance, which then serves as a relay point.

The concern is that Ingenuity reports back over the air. A robust and proven mode of communication. On the other hand, it has a limit that is anything but negligible: it is essential to have a free field between the transmitter and the receiver, otherwise the integrity of the signal is compromised. In this case, the researchers suspect two different elements to have obstructed: the terrain of Mars… and even Perseverance itself.

Ingenuity had to travel through a fairly hilly area, which made it difficult to communicate by radio. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

Frying on the line

The terrain in the area, quite rough, had some relief that may have made communication more difficult as Ingenuity approached the ground. Indeed, everything was working perfectly at its cruising altitude of 10m. It was only once we had descended to three meters that the problems would have started; this suggests that the line of communication could have been interrupted by a relief.

But according to the researchers, the rover itself could also have played a role. Indeed, the entire rear of the machine is occupied by a fairly massive and dense instrument, the Multi Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). However, it so happened that at the time of the loss of communication, the box which took it on was very precisely between Perseverance and the antenna of the rover, which could also have participated in the blackout.

This is a problem well known to NASA, which obviously takes these obstructions into account. But Perseverance being an extremely precious object, engineers adapt its plans from day to day to maximize the collection of scientific data. This is what happened on December 5th; Originally, the rover was supposed to be in a location that would have allowed it to communicate. But following a last minute change of plan, he found himself in a place where communication was more difficult.

A diagram of the Perseverance rover. The red line represents the line of communication between the rover and Ingenuity; we see it pass through a square block (the MMRTG) which could have participated in this loss of communication. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity, the unexpected wonder

Fortunately, the little helicopter has resources; in case of loss of communication, it is programmed to try to land on its own. It must then go into standby while awaiting instructions. He apparently managed to do this without a problem; engineers have since reestablished communication, and the charge rate observed on the solar panels seems to indicate that the device has landed correctly. All that remains is to recover the flight data. More fear than harm, in the end; this sacred fear will have been a constructive experience full of lessons. NASA can use it to develop more robust communication systems in the future.

So that’s probably a real relief for NASA knowing that Ingenuity continues to do wonders. Originally, it was only a small test machine; he had to lay the foundations for flight in the Martian atmosphere, no more and no less. No one, not even its designers, expected it to perform so well and for so long; 17 flights and several kilometers later, this small machine has already brought back a staggering amount of leading scientific results. And still seems to have reservations. Even if it has already largely fulfilled its initial mission, the challenge will be to continue to keep this precious and unexpected ally functioning for as long as possible. If all goes well, NASA’s prodigal son is expected to take off again within two weeks.

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