NASA Ingenuity prepares for Martian winter as power levels dwindle

NASA is having Ingenuity prepare itself for winter on Mars as the little helicopter is slowly not retaining enough power to last the night. So for now, regular flight operations will cease until possibly mid-October.

In early May, NASA lost connection with Ingenuity as it journeyed to meet up with the rover Perseverance near a river basin in Jezero Crater. Between Sol (Martian day) 427 and 428, NASA had no communications, but since Sol 429, teams have been able to connect to the helicopter when searched for. But now, Ingenuity is entering winter on Mars and must start preparing now to survive it.

Ingenuity must prepare for lower power in winter

The loss of connection has been due to low power levels going into the cold Martian nights. The charge of Ingenuity’s battery got low enough that it could no longer power its components, causing a reset of the mission clock. Once morning came and the battery on Ingenuity was able to recharge and wake back up, it missed its opportunity to connect with Perseverance.

View of Ingenuity’s single solar panel which charges the helicopter’s battery. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since then, NASA has been able to find and communicate with Ingenuity using the Helicopter Base Station on Perseverance. However, the issue is not fixed as Ingenuity is still not generating enough power to last the night. Ingenuity’s solar panel currently produces enough power to charge its battery to 68%. But that is 2% below the projections to last the night. That number is expected to rise to 7% as winter on Mars comes.

Next steps for Ingenuity

This is why NASA must prepare Ingenuity for winter. The current objective is to download the final flight logs and images of previous flights. Next, Ingenuity controllers will do a spin test of the helicopter’s blades similar to what was done before Ingenuity first flew.

GIF of NASA’s Ingenuity helictoper performing a sping test before its first flight on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The final step to prepare Ingenuity for winter will be flight 29, positioning it close enough to Perseverance to keep in contact until Martian spring. NASA expects Ingenuity to be power-positive again by Sol 600 in October. Then we hopefully will see the milestone flight 30 take place and have Ingenuity continue its scouting mission for Perseverance.

Ingenuity’s lower power winter could cause serious damage

Sadly, Ingenuity’s survival of winter is not a given. Each night as Ingenuity runs out of power, the components are subjected to the extremely cold temperatures of Mars. Called “cold soaking,” this has been linked back to the failures of Spirit and Opportunity.

NASA teams are focused on preparing Ingenuity for winter and hopefully putting the helicopter in the best state possible to survive. The helicopter has far outlived its expected lifespan, being only one month and five flights. Its current mission now supports Perseverance from the air as it searches for signs of life on Mars.

Even if this is the beginning of the end for Ingenuity (of which we hope it’s not), the science and demonstrations it has given researchers on the ground have been invaluable. Similar to what Sojourner did for Pathfinder, Ingenuity has proved the skies are no longer off-limits for Martian exploration.

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