The first flight of 2022 for the Ingenuity Helicopter has been delayed due to a regional dust storm on Mars. Mission planners had originally targeted January 5 for the tiny helicopter’s 19th flight, but they needed to push back the flight when orbital images and weather instruments on the Perseverance rover indicated a worsening weather situation.
Weather conditions have now improved, however, and the Ingenuity team anticipates the next flight will take place on Sunday, January 23.
A blog update for Ingenuity indicated that the changing seasons on Mars always present new challenges. In Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are located, it’s the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Not only does this mean a change in weather with more dust likely in the Martian air, but it also means the engineering team for Ingenuity needs to modify how they fly, due to a decrease in air density.
“Weather forecasting has become an integral piece of Martian flight planning,” wrote Jonathan Bapst and Michael Mischna from the Ingenuity Weather/Environment Team. “As weather forecasters, our job is to provide an evaluation of current weather conditions against flight requirements.”
Favorable conditions for safe flying for Ingenuity hinge on two key properties: air density and wind speed. The team relies information from a few different sources.
One is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) – an operating weather station aboard the Perseverance rover. With its suite of instruments, air density and measure speeds can be measured throughout the day, allowing changes to be tracked.
From orbit, the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide daily updates on the state of the atmosphere – useful for understanding activity outside of Jezero crater that could impact future weather.
Also, not too far away is the InSight lander, which recently went into safe mode due to a dust storm that blanketed the lander’s solar panels. It has now exited safe mode and resumed normal operations, although its science instruments remain off. The mission team is assessing the effects of dust accumulation on the lander’s power.
The plan for Ingenuity’s 19th flight is to reach the Jezero river delta to aid the Perseverance rover in path planning and scientific discovery.