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Mars helicopter to take a breather, recharge batteries

Like a lot of us hope to do, Ingenuity goes on summer break

The Mars Ingenuity helicopter is to take a breather to recharge its batteries after its latest successful flight a little over a month ago.

Power is a problem for the experimental flying machine as dust in the Martian atmosphere means less sunlight is reaching the vehicle's solar panels to charge its batteries. Ingenuity has managed one flight following a workaround to deal with a failed inclinometer, as well as a loss of communication caused by power issues, but will attempt no more until at least August.

All told, the helicopter has managed 29 flights since it first took to the Martian skies over a year ago. The latest, in June, went on for a little over a minute as the helicopter hustled to a spot for better communications with the Perseverance rover.

Ingenuity has surpassed all reasonable expectations for performance and longevity, although the clock is running down for the device. Engineers have had to adapt operations as the helicopter continued functioning past its original test campaign, planned for the more favorable conditions of the Martian spring. A lack of sunlight during winter has meant the helicopter has had to be shutdown overnight and its electronics endure a drop in temperatures.

The expectation is that dust levels in the atmosphere will drop in July "so the team has decided to give the helicopter's batteries a break for a few weeks and build their daily state of charge back up," according to NASA.

Should all go to plan, engineers hope the helicopter will take to the skies once again in early August.

Dust has bedeviled many a NASA probe over the years. The Opportunity rover was eventually done in by a dust storm after a 15-year stint trundling around the surface and the agency's InSight lander is set to go out in a blaze of data-gathering glory in the next month or so as its power levels drop. While some wags might wonder why a wiper affair could not be fitted, engineers will patiently explain payload constraints and note that in both instances the robot and lander far exceeded all expectations regardless.

And, of course, there is always an xkcd. Particularly where Opportunity's extended mission was concerned.

The Ingenuity helicopter is a triumph of engineering. After 29 flights it's probably owed a few weeks in which to recharge its batteries. ®

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