February 23, 2024

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity has had a remarkable lifespan and has proven to be a greater success than anyone imagined. Originally designed to perform just five flights over the surface of Mars, the helicopter has now performed more than 70. However, NASA has now announced that it has lost contact with the helicopter, though it’s unclear how serious this problem is.

The helicopter was performing its 72nd flight, which was an adjustment and correction to a previous flight that was cut short. Flight 71 was intended to be a journey of 1,175 feet (358 meters), but when the helicopter made this flight earlier in the month, it traveled just a third of that. The problem was related to its downward-facing camera, which uses surface indications for autonomous navigation. The helicopter was traveling over a particularly featureless expanse of the surface, and the lack of landmarks appeared to cause a problem with its navigation, forcing the flight to end early.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, 2021, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

With Flight 71 cut short, the plan for Flight 72 was to have the helicopter rise briefly into the air before setting back down to check the systems were now working following the earlier issue. But when it came time for the helicopter to perform this brief flight on January 18, there was a problem. The helicopter did make it into the air, but communications cut out during its landing.

“On January 18, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter executed its 72nd flight at the Red Planet. The flight was designed as a quick pop-up vertical flight to check out the helicopter’s systems, following an unplanned early landing during its previous flight. Data Ingenuity sent to the Perseverance rover (which acts as a relay between the helicopter and Earth) during the flight indicates it successfully climbed to its assigned maximum altitude of 40 feet (12 meters),” NASA wrote in a brief statement.

“During its planned descent, communications between the helicopter and rover terminated early, prior to touchdown. The Ingenuity team is analyzing available data and considering next steps to reestablish communications with the helicopter.”

NASA lost communication with the helicopter in the summer of last year, so it may be that communications with the helicopter can be re-established. It’s also possible that the Perseverance rover, which is nearby but currently out of sight of the helicopter, could drive over to perform a visual inspection to find out more about the helicopter’s status.

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