NASA loses, and then recovers, contact with its historic Mars helicopter

Enlarge / NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter has been flying across the red planet for nearly three years.


The US space agency prompted widespread dismay in the spaceflight community on Friday evening when it announced that communication had been lost with the Mars Ingenuity helicopter during its most recent flight on Thursday, January 18.

“During its planned descent, communications between the helicopter and rover terminated early, prior to touchdown,” according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Ingenuity team is analyzing available data and considering next steps to reestablish communications with the helicopter.”

This seemed like a bad sign for the plucky little helicopter, which has vastly outperformed its planned lifetime of a handful of test flights since it landed on Mars in February 2021 and began flying two months later. Rather, the communications loss occurred on the 72nd flight of the 4-pound flying machine—the first on another planet.

However, by Saturday, there was a more hopeful update from NASA. On the social media site X, the agency said: “Good news today: We’ve reestablished contact with the #MarsHelicopter after instructing @NASAPersevere to perform long-duration listening sessions for Ingenuity’s signal.”

An aging flying machine

Over the weekend the helicopter’s flight team began reviewing the data from the helicopter to better understand why the unexpected communications dropout occurred during Flight 72. It’s not clear what they will find, but there have been some health concerns recently as the helicopter approaches three years of service.

On the vehicle’s 71st flight about two weeks ago, the helicopter was supposed to traverse a long distance of nearly 1,200 feet (358 meters), reaching an altitude of 40 feet (12 meters) and spending nearly 125 seconds airborne. NASA had sought to reposition the helicopter for future flights to survey new areas of the Martian surface. However, during that flight Ingenuity made an unplanned early landing.

Thursday’s flight was intended as a check-up flight, to rise straight up to about 40 feet before setting down in the same location after 30 seconds. With the Perseverance rover monitoring the helicopter and relaying data back to scientists on Earth, Ingenuity reached its maximum altitude. But then, communications were lost. Over the next day, as Perseverance dedicated more time to listening for Ingenuity, the helicopter was found again.

So what happens now? Ingenuity has survived a lot on Mars, including communication issues, dust storms, long winters, and more. Expect the program’s scientists and engineers to take their time to diagnose the most recent issue, and likely perform more test flights. But the reality is that Ingenuity is probably a lot closer to the end of its flying days than the beginning; nearer the end of its remarkable story than the start.

And that’s OK. All good things must end. Even great and ingenious things, like the first flying machine on Mars.

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