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NASA restores contact with Mars helicopter after nine weeks of silence

The last time NASA had contact with Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter was flying in the air on April 26.

Ten weeks on, the Mars team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California has announced that it’s restored contact with the aircraft, and everything appears to be in order.

Truth be told, the communications outage wasn’t unexpected. It happened because a hill stood between the helicopter’s landing location and Perseverance, NASA’s Mars rover that arrived on the red planet with Ingenuity in February 2021.

The hill blocked the communication link between the two vehicles, and because the rover acts as a radio relay between the helicopter and mission controllers at JPL, contact between Ingenuity and Earth was temporarily lost.

JPL said that mission controllers were able to get back in touch with Ingenuity on June 28 when Perseverance reached the top of the hill, bringing the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter back into view. With contact restored, JPL was able to download the data from its 52nd flight on April 26.

To its relief, the team was able to confirm that the helicopter performed a successful landing at the end of a 139-second flight that covered a distance of 1,191 feet (363 meters).

“The portion of Jezero Crater the rover and helicopter are currently exploring has a lot of rugged terrain, which makes communications dropouts more likely,” JPL’s Josh Anderson, the Ingenuity team lead, said in an article on JPL’s website. “The team’s goal is to keep Ingenuity ahead of Perseverance, which occasionally involves temporarily pushing beyond communication limits. We’re excited to be back in communications range with Ingenuity and receive confirmation of Flight 52.”

JPL said if Ingenuity passes checks to confirm that it suffered no ill effects from its recent period of isolation, then it’ll send the helicopter skyward on its 53rd flight in the next few weeks.

Ingenuity has performed far beyond expectations since reaching Mars in 2021. After becoming the first aircraft to perform powered, controlled flight on another planet, the helicopter has gone on to fly increasingly complex flights and has even assisted the Perseverance team by capturing aerial imagery that’s used to plan safe and efficient routes for the ground-based rover.

With the flight technology well and truly proven, NASA is expected to build more advanced Ingenuity-like aircraft for future missions to Mars and other celestial bodies.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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