On Thursday, May 5, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) managed to re-establish communication with Ingenuity, the helicopter currently on Mars. Two days earlier, the device had failed during a scheduled contact. According to the engineers, Ingenuity was able to cope with a very low level of energy caused by the presence of dust in the atmosphere and the very low local temperatures. This prevented him from making contact with the Perseverance rover which relays communication with Earth.
According to JPL’s explanations, the dust reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the helicopter’s solar panels. This reduces the device’s ability to charge its six batteries. When the charge level of the batteries reaches a certain lower limit, the FPGA or Field-Programmable Gate Array system is deactivated.
Initially, Ingenuity was only to accomplish 5 flights after arriving on the Red Planet. But today the helicopter has already managed to make 28 flights, and NASA, by the way, has extended its mission until September of this year.
An energy problem
Currently, Ingenuity is performing reconnaissance flights for the Perseverance rover. However, the conditions are very harsh since they exceed the limits established during the design of the device. We are mainly talking here about the amount of dust in the atmosphere and the very low level of temperature.
According to the information, the FPGA system is crucial to keep Ingenuity operational. The FGPA indeed manages functions such as the power of the avionics elements or the heating system which allows the helicopter to survive very cold Martian nights. The FGPA also manages the Ingenuity clock, and it is this clock that manages scheduled communications with Perseverance.
According to the JPL team, when the FGPA was turned off due to lack of power during the night, Ingenuity’s clock could be reset and the heating system turned off. When the battery started charging, the clock was out of sync with the rover’s. The helicopter was thus able to make contact with Perseverance without the latter being listening.
To remedy this problem, the team commanded the rover to listen for the signal coming from the helicopter for an entire day on Mars or on the ground. This signal was finally picked up on May 5 at 11:45 a.m. on Mars. This contact made it possible to know that the general condition of Ingenuity was good.
Due to the presence of dust in the atmosphere, it became difficult for Ingenuity to recharge its batteries. However, energy is needed to operate the heating system and the clock. During the last three sols, the helicopter turned on its heater whenever the battery temperature was below -15°C. But at this rate, the batteries will no longer be able to maintain the heating during the night.
A new strategy
Faced with this problem, the engineers have developed a new strategy. They sent commands that changed the start point of the battery. This point now corresponds to -40°C. Also, the helicopter will immediately shut down instead of using battery power.
According to JPL, the team hopes this strategy will allow the battery to retain the charge that has been collected during the day. In the best case, the helicopter will have stored enough energy in the next few days to be able to operate normally.
However, this method presents a risk. The parts used to manufacture Ingenuity are not optimized to remain active in the cold of Mars which can reach -80°C at the level where the helicopter is located. In any case, the engineers hope that Ingenuity can maintain more energy for at least a few weeks.