Historic Mars weather delay pushes next Ingenuity helicopter flight to Sunday

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has achieved another milestone: the first weather-related flight delay on another planet.

Ingenuity was scheduled to make its 19th jump to the Red Planet on January 5. However, on New Year’s Day a severe dust storm arose near Jezero Crater, which the helicopter and its robotic companion, NASA’s Perseverance rover, have been exploring. from February 2021.

This was not great news for the helicopter team.

“Atmospheric dust will decrease the amount of sunlight reaching Ingenuity’s solar panels, which charge the batteries needed for flight,” Jonathan Bapst and Michael Mischna of Ingenuity’s climate/environment team wrote in an update Wednesday. (January 19).

“In addition, dust in the atmosphere is heated by sunlight and warms the surrounding atmosphere, resulting in a reduction of the already low-density air in which Ingenuity must fly,” added Bapst and Mischna, both based at Jet. NASA propulsion. laboratory in southern California.

Related: It’s Getting Harder to Fly the Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars

The Ingenuity team decided to withdraw from the January 5th attempt and wait for the dust storm to dissipate or pass. This was a historic decision, making Ingenuity the first aircraft to have a flight delayed by inclement weather on another planet. It turned out to be the right one, too, Bapst and Mischna said.

“In the days after the flight delay, the dust storm moved over Jezero Crater and we could clearly see its effects in both the MEDA data and from orbit,” the duo wrote. (MEDA is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, the weather station aboard Perseverance. Orbital data courtesy of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.)

“Most notable was a sharp drop in air density, about a 7% deviation below what was observed before the dust storm,” Bapst and Mischna added. “This observed decrease would have put the density below the lower threshold of safe flight and imparted undue risk to the spacecraft. We also observed the effect of dust on the amount of sunlight absorbed by Ingenuity’s solar array, which fell very below normal ‘clear'”. sky levels, a drop of about 18%”.

The dust storm has died down and Flight 19 is now scheduled for no earlier than Sunday (Jan. 23), Bapst and Mischna said. The 100-second exit will take Ingenuity out of Jezero’s rugged South Séítah Basin, over a ridge and onto a plateau, mission team members said.

Large and powerful dust storms regularly occur on Mars. A few years ago, for example, a planet-encircling maelstrom killed NASA’s venerable Opportunity rover. And more dust delays could happen in the near future for Ingenuity. Fall is coming at Jezero Crater, which lies about 18 degrees north of the Red Planet’s equator, and fall through winter is known as the “dusty season” on Mars, Bapst and Mischna said.

“Future events are expected later in the dust season and have the potential to develop into global-scale storms like those most recently observed in 2018, 2007 and 2001,” they wrote in Wednesday’s update. “We will continue to be diligent in our efforts to fly Ingenuity safely for the foreseeable future.”

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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