NASA just grounded one of its most important Mars missions

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NASA has grounded Ingenuity. The space agency’s tiny Mars-based helicopter is now on an extended break in the Jezero crater.

NASA just grounded Ingenuity until August

ingenuity grounded in Jezero craterImage source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The tiny helicopter has been breaking records since it arrived on the Red Planet back in 2021. In that time, it has proven that flight is possible on Mars, despite the thin atmosphere and lower gravity. But why exactly has NASA grounded Ingenuity? Is something wrong with Perseverance’s companion?

Not exactly, no. Ingenuity itself is in perfectly fine condition. However, it’s now winter on Mars, and that means the planet’s atmosphere has become increasingly dusty. The dust has been a terribly inconvenient factor in our study of the Martian surface. In fact, dust caused NASA to shut down the InSight lander after it covered the spacecraft’s solar panels.

Because InSight used solar panels to recharge its batteries, the lander is now running out of power. But, NASA plans to get as much science out of that juice as possible. Grounding Ingenuity, the team says, will give the small helicopter a chance to recharge its batteries. That way, when the dust settles, it can return to work. So, Ingenuity isn’t grounded forever.

One of NASA’s most important missions

image from Ingenuity flight
From NASA’s blog: “This image of Mars was taken from the height of 33 feet (10 meters) by NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its sixth flight on May 22, 2021.” Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While Ingenuity isn’t hunting for signs of life like the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, it is still one of the space agency’s most important missions on the Red Planet. The entire point of sending Ingenuity to Mars was to prove that flight was possible on the planet. By doing so, NASA can plan for flight-based transport options in the future.

These kinds of transport options could be useful for moving around supplies and maybe even one day providing ways to travel for actual communities on Mars. Of course, we’ll need to see how NASA’s first manned mission to the planet goes in the 2030s. Grounding Ingenuity really isn’t that unexpected. Earlier this year, NASA lost contact with Ingenuity for a short time.

The connection was restored, thankfully, but losing the helicopter now would cut off any chance of collecting more flight data. Additionally, because Ingenuity keeps breaking new records, it gives NASA engineers a chance to push the hardware to its limits. That way, in the future, they can build even more resilient tech to explore the Martian surface.

With Ingenuity grounded, we’ll have to wait a while before the tiny helicopter starts breaking new records. Of course, with James Webb’s first photos now out there, we have plenty of other space-related content to look forward to.



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