NASA looks into unusual Mars helicopter communications hiccup during flight

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter spotted its own shadow during its 13th flight on the red planet.


This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

It seems NASA’s plucky Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed its 17th Mars flight on Sunday, but something unusual happened near the end of the journey. The Perseverance rover and the rotorcraft normally stay in touch during flight, but as Ingenuity descended, it lost its radio communications link with its wheeled companion. 

That might sound pretty worrisome, but initial indications suggest the helicopter is just fine. “Approximately 15 minutes later, Perseverance received several packets of additional Ingenuity telemetry indicating that the flight electronics and battery were healthy,” Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos wrote in a status update on Tuesday.

The Ingenuity team is looking into the communications issue, and said it’s likely “due to a challenging radio configuration between Perseverance and Ingenuity during landing.” A combination of factors might have contributed to the problem, including the rover’s orientation in relation to Ingenuity and a hill that may have disrupted the radio signal at the end of the flight.

This image and graphic shows Ingenuity’s takeoff and landing sites in relation to the Perseverance rover. The spot labeled “Bras” is the hill that may have contributed to the communication interruption. The topo map shows the elevation of the landscape between the rotorcraft and rover.


The rotorcraft’s Flight 17 lasted 117 seconds and the data it’s transferred to the rover so far looks good for it having landed in a safe, upright position. The Ingenuity team is planning to recover the missing data as soon as Wednesday and make a final health assessment of the helicopter.

If all is well, Ingenuity could fly again within a couple weeks. It’s currently heading back to its original landing site and acting as an aerial scout for Perseverance. 

The helicopter was considered a high-risk, high-reward technology experiment, and it has firmly landed on the high-reward part of that equation. It has already successfully weathered some minor technical glitches and continues to soar in the challenging conditions of the Jezero Crater.

Tzanetos expects this won’t be the only time Ingenuity’s radio communications get interrupted: “We will do all that we can in planning to prevent them (when possible), but temporary loss of radio link is a natural part of helicopter operations at the red planet.”

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