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NASA temporarily grounding Mars helicopter Ingenuity to wait for dust to clear

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface
This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

NASA's Mars helicopter is taking a break from its groundbreaking operations on the surface of the Red Planet. 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity's mission, announced on Thursday (July 14) that Ingenuity, the first aircraft to make a powered flight on an extraterrestrial world will be pausing operations for the next several weeks. "The #MarsHelicopter is taking a break for the next few weeks. It's winter and dust season on Mars, which means less sunlight to recharge Ingenuity’s batteries. But don’t worry, the team expects the rotorcraft to fly again in August," JPL stated on Twitter (opens in new tab).

Like Earth, Mars has a slightly tilted axis in respect to its orbital plane, meaning different amounts of sunlight reach the planet's northern and southern hemispheres over the course of a year, giving them distinct seasons. Over the next few weeks, Martian winter means more dust will be in the air, blocking out the sunlight Ingenuity needs to recharge.

Related: Mars helicopter Ingenuity: First aircraft to fly on Red Planet

Ingenuity should be back up in the Martian air by the beginning of August, according to a NASA statement (opens in new tab) published Wednesday (July 13). "Dust levels are expected to subside later 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," the statement reads.

Other Mars rovers have to take similar pauses during the Martian winter as well. China's Zhurong rover entered hibernation on May 18 for the same reason as Ingenuity, and the lifespan of NASA's past rovers like Opportunity have likewise been threatened by the harsh conditions during winter on the Red Planet. (In fact, the solar-powered Opportunity was killed by a giant, sun-blocking dust storm in 2018.) Nevertheless, NASA engineers are confident that, weather permitting, Ingenuity will make it through safe and sound.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter launched in the summer of 2020 and landed in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021 attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover. Perseverance deployed the helicopter weeks later, and Ingenuity took its first flight on April 19, 2021. The first flight of the 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) helicopter lasted 39 seconds and saw Ingenuity hovering around 10 feet (3 meters) above the reddish soil of a site appropriately named Wright Brothers Field, honoring the pioneers of human flight on Earth.

To date, Ingenuity has made a total of 29 flights (opens in new tab) totaling 55 minutes of air time, far exceeding its original planned mission of just five flights.

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.