Mars helicopter phones home after 63 days of silence

If Japanese space boffins have their way, it could be joined by a robotic hummingbird

NASAs Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has phoned home, more than 60 days after last establishing contact.


China space agency reckons Zhurong Mars rover has probably been done in by dust


Ingenuity's last flight was on April 26, when the rotorcraft took to Martian skies for 139 seconds and hopped 363 meters.

The copter's role is to fly ahead of the Perseverance Rover and scout any potential obstacles or items of interest. On Flight 52, that meant the flying machine landed over a hill, in a location from which it did not enjoy line of sight to the rover.

Perseverance has since caught up, crested the hill, and on June 28 was able to see Ingenuity and re-establish contact.

NASAs assessment of the copter's status – based on the little data it has shared – "indicates all is well with the first aircraft on another world."

This period of silence for Ingenuity is unrelated to the scarier incident after flight 49, when the rotorcraft was out of touch for over six days. On that occasion, a rocky outcrop was an expected source of comms complications, but Ingenuity was also "drifting in and out of night-time survival mode" and the lack of even an "ack" for several days was rated a source of "unease."

The 'copter eventually came back online and flew three more times before the Martian terrain led to its silence after flight 52.

A tentative flight plan for a 53rd journey has since been developed, with NASA hoping to visit "an interim airfield to the west, from which the team plans to perform another westward flight to a new base of operations near a rocky outcrop the Perseverance team is interested in exploring."

Watch the skies – you might not be alone

Ingenuity's initial mission called for just five flights, as NASA was unsure if a rotorcraft could fly in the very thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.

Japanese researchers have approached the same problem with a different design: a robot modelled on a hummingbird – a creature whose wings beat forwards and backwards rather than up and down as is the case for other birds.

A June paper in Nature, penned by scientists from Japanese universities, details tests of a robot that flew like a hummingbird at a simulated altitude of 9,000 meters.

The authors concluded their work "could be extrapolated to the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere" where "such a flapping robot could enable Martial aerial exploration assisting the rovers and human exploration."

For now, however, Ingenuity rules the Martian skies. ®

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