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Brave little Mars helicopter Ingenuity battles the cold to get back in the air

Good news for the hardy little Mars helicopter Ingenuity, which has braved the Martian winter thus far and will soon be getting back into the air. The helicopter has been taking a break from flight since July as it deals with cold seasonal temperatures and increasing dust in the atmosphere, which limited its ability to recharge its battery. Temperatures are still low in the Jezero Crater, going down to as low as -124 degrees Fahrenheit (-86 degrees Celsius) at night, but the Ingenuity team is now planning a short hop for the upcoming Flight 30.

Ingenuity hasn’t flown since Flight 29 on June 11, so the team has performed some checks to ensure everything is still working as required. These included a low-rpm spin of the helicopter’s rotors on August 6, and a high-rpm spin on August 15. The helicopter stayed on the surface but spun up its rotors to similar speeds to those used in an actual flight, and data from the tests looked good.

So it’s on the the next flight, as described by Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos in a blog post: “This 30th sortie will be a short hop – which will check out our system’s health after surviving 101 sols of winter, collect landing delivery data in support of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Campaign, and potentially clear off dust that has settled on our solar panel since Flight 29.”

Ingenuity at Airfield D: This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.
Ingenuity at Airfield D: This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

In Flight 30, Ingenuity will be in the air for around 30 seconds, rising to an altitude of 16.5 feet and making a sideways trip of just 7 feet before landing. That’s because the purpose of the flight is more to check whether the helicopter can still land accurately than to actually go anywhere. Once this is confirmed, the helicopter can get back to longer flights like heading along the Jezero delta where the Perseverance rover is currently exploring.

“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,” Tzanetos writes. “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.”

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