Last Thursday (Jan 18th), NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) lost contact with the Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its 72nd test flight on the red planet. This four pound drone has exceeded all expectations since arriving on Mars in 2021, but this sudden silence was ominous.
Fortunately, after long sessions “listening” for a signal, the agency announced Saturday that contact had been regained. The Perseverance rover aided recovery efforts by receiving the faint transmission from Ingenuity’s location about half a mile away.
So what happened to cause this communications dropout? It occurred as Ingenuity was descending from an altitude of 40 feet reached during this “pop-up” flight to check aircraft systems. One moment data flowed between the aerial scout and home base on Earth, and the next – nothing but static.
Naturally NASA scientists were concerned this pioneering robot’s hard work in the harsh Martian environment had finally been too much. But this weekend brought a huge relief, even if what caused the temporary outage remains unclear.
This isn’t the first time that NASA has lost touch with Ingenuity Mars helicopter. Last year controllers spent an agonizing two months in the dark before regaining contact. This petite chopper must conserve power from solar panels to make it through brutally cold nights unscathed.
Still, each sudden silence prompts worries that Ingenuity’s trailblazing flights are grounded for good. What would be lost if operations cease? This rotorcraft has flown over 10 miles across Mars, scouting terrain for the Perseverance rover and proving powered, controlled flight off Earth is possible.
Before that disappointing conclusion comes, NASA will thoroughly review the latest data and attempt determining what led to the premature signal loss. Until a cause is verified, the agency cannot confirm if Ingenuity remains capable of adding to its total of 72 successful test runs aloft.
For now, all we know is communication has been restored thanks to Perseverance’s aid. Hope remains that this ambitious forerunner to more advanced aerial vehicles on Mars may again defy the odds and take back to the alien skies. But if last week’s flight was indeed Ingenuity’s final landing, it circled above Jezero crater while accomplishing tremendously more than imagined possible.