NASA’s Mars helicopter has taken to the skies again after a lengthy break due to bitterly cold conditions on the distant planet.
The space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission, took to Twitter to share news of Ingenuity’s return to the martian skies, revealing that the flight involved a “short hop” to enable the team to test that it’s still working OK, and to remove dust from its solar panel.
“The Mars helicopter is back in flight!” JPL said in the tweet. “After a two-month hiatus, the rotorcraft did a short hop over the weekend so the team can check its vitals and knock some dust off the solar panel.”
The #MarsHelicopter is back in flight! After a two-month hiatus, the rotorcraft did a short hop over the weekend so the team can check its vitals and knock some dust off the solar panel.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 22, 2022
Saturday’s lift-off marked Ingenuity’s 30th sortie and came 16 months after its historic maiden flight when it became the first aircraft to achieve controlled, powered flight on a planet other than Earth.
The helicopter’s downtime was prompted by the harsh winter conditions that enveloped Jezero Crater where the flying machine is located. The frigid temperatures were simply too cold for the helicopter to safely operate, and the reduced amount of sunlight landing on its solar panel prevented the helicopter from maintaining an adequate charge through both day and night. The conditions left Ingenuity rooted to the spot following its last aerial adventure on June 11.
After a couple of short ground-based tests on August 6 and 15, the team at JPL confirmed that Ingenuity was good to take its first flight in more than two months.
According to a plan released prior to Saturday’s sortie, the flight involved Ingenuity climbing to a maximum altitude of 16.5 feet (5 meters), flying sideways about 6.5 feet (2 meters), and then coming back down to land. The flight was expected to last about 33 seconds, though this has yet to be confirmed.
“We intend to continue our flight path toward the river delta in the coming weeks while the environment (and thus the daily recoverable battery charge) continues to improve,” JPL said in a recent blog post. “With higher battery states of charge will come longer flights, and eventually Ingenuity will be able to power its internal heaters overnight, which will stop its electronics from freezing in the martian cold each evening.”
It added that next month it will upload a software upgrade to Ingenuity that will give it new navigation capabilities for more efficient flights across the challenging river delta terrain.
Following a successful string of flight tests last year, Ingenuity started assisting NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover as the ground-based vehicle seeks to gather martian soil samples aimed at helping scientists determine if life of any form ever existed on the red planet.
The helicopter has helped by mapping the martian terrain to find the best routes for Perseverance to take, and imaging areas of interest to see if it’s worth sending Perseverance for a closer look.
Ingenuity has proved so successful that NASA plans to deploy more advanced versions of the flying mission in future space missions.