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Martian dust storm delays next flight of Ingenuity helicopter

Earth isn’t the only place where bad weather affects space flights. The weather on Mars can also be tricky, and recently it has caused some problems for the planned flight of the Ingenuity helicopter.

Ingenuity had been scheduled to take its nineteenth flight earlier this month, but a regional dust storm forced the team to delay for the safety of the helicopter. Still, the Ingenuity team and handling the situation with humor, as two members of the Ingenuity Weather/Environment Team, Jonathan Bapst and Michael Mischna, wrote in an update: “In preparing for Flight 19, we found out that unexpected Mars weather can result in a familiar and unfortunate scenario here on Earth: a delayed flight. Fortunately, Ingenuity carries no passengers, and all its luggage is ‘carry-on,’ so the consequence is little more than waiting for better weather.”

Composite view showing the presence of a regional dust storm obscuring the location of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (white circle).
Images acquired January 9, 2022, from the Mars Color Imager instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were combined to create this view showing the presence of a regional dust storm obscuring the location of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (white circle). NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars experiences dramatic dust storms which can cover whole regions or even sometimes the entire planet. As its atmosphere is so thin and its gravity is lower than Earth’s, dust particles can easily be whipped up by winds and create large dust storms; a phenomenon that becomes more common during certain seasons.

Predicting weather on Mars is a considerable challenge, but researchers can use tools like the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument on board the Perseverance rover to measure factors like wind speed and air density, helping the prediction of weather phenomena like dust storms.

“A strong regional dust storm appeared on the first day of the new year, encompassing Jezero crater just as we scheduled Flight 19. The presence of this storm came quite early – even before the dusty season traditionally starts! In fact, we have never seen a storm of this strength so early in the Mars year before,” Bapst and Mischna wrote.

When the weather team caught indications of a growing dust storm, they made the decision to delay Ingenuity’s flight. “The data we analyze from MEDA and orbital assets can have a lag of a few hours to a few days, and so we had to make a forecast for Flight 19 a few days into the future,” they wrote. “It was clear that there was considerable uncertainty on the horizon. The weather team recommended delaying Flight 19, which was ultimately adopted by the Ingenuity team.”

The good news is that the dust storm in the area has now cleared, so Ingenuity will be able to go ahead with its next flight. It is now scheduled for January 23, at the earliest.

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