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Mars helicopter to sit dormant until radio contact restored

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Mars helicopter to sit dormant until radio contact restored
NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is seen on the planet's surface on April 5, the 45th Martian day of the Perseverance rover mission. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 10 (UPI) -- NASA's Mars helicopter may have to wait days to overcome a blocked radio signal caused by hills between it and the Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater, a NASA official said.

Until then, the tiny helicopter that has captured the imagination and attention of people around the globe will sit quietly, charging its solar-powered batteries, Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity program lead, said in an interview.

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"Eventually, one way or another, we will get much better communications, so it's just a question of when are we going to try again," Tzanetos said.

The helicopter lost radio contact with the rover Sunday when it descended to a landing behind a hill after flying about 1/10 of a mile. After a 15-minute blackout, the rover managed to receive broken transmissions from Ingenuity, indicating the tiny aircraft was OK.

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Since such broken transmissions don't allow the helicopter to send photos or data, NASA doesn't know exactly how long the flight was, or even what the terrain looks like where Ingenuity landed, Tzanetos said.

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"For example, if there's a massive rock or a dropoff right next to the helicopter, any attempt to fly might be detrimental," he said. "So we want to at least know how safe is our current landing area before we do anything."

Perseverance, meanwhile, is scouting for its next rock sampling location. The primary mission of the rover is to search for signs of ancient life in the crater, which NASA believes was a lake billions of years ago.

Eventually, Tzanetos believes Perseverance will move through more level terrain that will clear up the radio signal to Ingenuity.

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"Basically we have discovered the limits of Ingenuity's off-the-shelf 900-megahertz radio link," he said.

In a worst-case scenario, engineers could try several fixes, Tzanetos said. That might include sending the rover closer to the $80 million helicopter or pointing the rover's antennae specifically at Ingenuity.

But those methods would require signoff from NASA leadership, which is responsible for Perseverance's higher-priority mission.

As a last resort, Ingenuity could hop directly upward in a purely vertical flight to restore contact with the rover, Tzanetos said. But such a flight isn't planned or designed due to the unknown surrounding area.

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Eventually, the rover and the helicopter will move into rough terrain of the Jezero Crater delta and cliff walls, so the data gained from radio interruptions could be vital, he said.

Dispatches from Mars: Perseverance rover sends images

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Martian sunset on November 9, 2021, the 257th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Martian sunsets typically stand out for their distinctive blue color as fine dust in the atmosphere permits blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than colors with longer wavelengths. But this sunset looks different: Less dust in the atmosphere resulted in a more muted color than average. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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