NASA's Mars Ingenuity chopper went silent for six 'agonizing' days

The Ingenuity team has been playing a 'high-stakes game of hide and seek' with the Martian helicopter for some time now.
Chris Young
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.


NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, the first aircraft to perform a controlled flight on another planet when it first took to the skies in April 2019, is experiencing communication problems.

The Mars chopper has only been communicating with NASA scientists intermittently over the last few days, making it difficult for the Ingenuity team to perform another flight.

Ingenuity was only ever supposed to fly about five times. It has far exceeded those initial mission parameters, though, having taken to the skies for the 50th time in April.

The Ingenuity team didn't hear from the helicopter for an "agonizingly long time"

In a status update posted on May 26 by Ingenuity's chief engineer Travis Brown, explained that the recent communications problems arose before Ingenuity's 50th flight and just after its 49th on April 2, 2023.

After the downlink of data from the 49th flight, the Ingenuity team was unable to uplink instructions to the rotorcraft for its 50th flight. "That downlink was the last time the team would hear from the helicopter for an agonizingly long time," Brown explained in the update.

The problem actually began earlier, though, after flight 40 in January 2023 when the Ingenuity team started experiencing "brownouts" — meaning parts of the helicopter were receiving less power than required and it would go into low-power mode.

On Sol 755 (the 755th Martian day of the mission), the team completely lost contact with Ingenuity. "In more than 700 sols operating the helicopter on Mars, not once had we ever experienced a total radio blackout, Brown wrote. "Even in the worst communications environments, we had always seen some indication of activity."

Thankfully, though, on Sols 761 and 762, two small radio communications came through, showing that Ingenuity was alive. The team later determined that a rocky ridge between Perseverance and Ingenuity was obstructing communications. When the rover got within 262 feet (80 meters) of the helicopter, they were able to uplink instructions and go ahead with flight 50.

Ingenuity may be approaching the end of its mission

Ingenuity is now a fully-fledged aerial scout for the Perseverance mission as it has gone beyond initial expectations by helping the ground team to plan the rover's path.

In his post, Brown did state that dust buildup on the helicopter's solar panels will likely lead to more brownouts. "We are not yet done playing this high-stakes game of hide and seek with the playful little helicopter," he wrote.

Every Ingenuity flight is a major achievement and every flight might be the historic helicopter's last.

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