For the first time ever, a flight delay has occurred on another planet due to bad weather.
The Ingenuity helicopter, which was slated to take to Martian skies on January 5, had to push its 19th flight back because of an unusually strong regional dust storm on Mars, according to NASA.
Now, the team anticipates that this flight will take place on Sunday, January 23.
While Mars is smaller and has a less dense atmosphere than Earth, the red planet still experiences the changing of the seasons and high winds, dust storms and ice clouds.
Orbiters circling the planet and instruments aboard missions like the Perseverance rover and InSight lander are helping scientists to better understand weather on Mars, but much like the uncertainty factor that meteorologists experience on Earth, forecasting weather on another planet is even more difficult.
Understanding weather and seasonal changes ahead of Ingenuity’s flights has been crucial to the success of its previous 18 aerial forays. The little four-pound (1.8-kilogram) chopper has flown through spring and summer conditions on Mars, and autumn will begin on February 24.
As the seasons change, the air density goes through a cycle of ups and downs on Mars. Air density is one of two crucial factors when it comes to calculating favorable conditions for flight on Mars. Wind speed is the other factor.
Perseverance carries its own weather station called MEDA, or the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, to help NASA teams calculate air density and measure wind speed over the course of a day as well as how they shift through the progression of the seasons.
The arrival of autumn on Mars is known as the “dusty season” on Mars because it’s when the amount of dust lofted in the atmosphere increases globally and remains this way through winter.
Dust is the greatest threat to Mars missions. A planet-encircling dust storm ended the Opportunity rover’s impressive 15-year journey in 2019 by draining and preventing its batteries from recharging.
Dust in the atmosphere can decrease the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar panels powering missions like Ingenuity.
This lofted dust, which is heated by sunlight, also warms the atmosphere and reduces the air density even more.
THE GATHERING STORM
The Ingenuity team was in for a surprise when an unusually strong dust storm cropped up in the Jezero Crater region on the first day of 2022, arriving well ahead of the dusty season.
“In fact, we have never seen a storm of this strength so early in the Mars year before,” wrote Jonathan Bapst and Michael Mischna, members of the Ingenuity Weather and Environment Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in an update.
Perseverance first spotted the approach of the January storm as dust lifted around the two robotic explorers in Jezero Crater.
From orbit, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed an expanding regional dust storm moving from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere on Mars.
From the orbiter’s perspective, it appeared that the storm may be heading for the crater and the two robots within it.
After a dust storm reduced the sunlight that could reach its solar panels, the InSight lander, which is more than 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) to the east of Perseverance, entered safe mode on January 7.
The team made the call to delay the flight, and it turn out they were right to do so. Just after they postponed Ingenuity’s aerial hop, the dust storm passed over the crater. Perseverance’s weather station reflected the changes caused by the storm.
The storm has since cleared and Ingenuity is once again preparing for flight.
The experience of this event has helped the helicopter’s team to prepare for what to expect once the dusty season arrives. Storms that spring up during this time can morph into global storms that have swept across Mars in 2001, 2007 and 2018.
Above all else, the team wants Ingenuity to continue its history of safe, groundbreaking flights as it serves as an aerial scout for Perseverance on its journey to seek potential evidence of ancient life on the red planet.
Perseverance is troubleshooting its own issues right now in the form of some pesky stray pebbles that have prevented the rover from storing its seventh sample, collected initially on December 29. Ultimately, the rover may have to dump the current sample in the tube and attempt to collect another one from the same rock.
During Flight 19, Ingenuity will essentially continue a reversed version of its journey so far. Both Perseverance and the chopper are retracing their initial steps in Jezero Crater to begin the next phase of their joint adventure: exploring the remains of an ancient river delta that once fed into the lake that filled Jezero Crater more than 3 billion years ago.
Samples from the delta could help scientists better understand when water existed on Mars — and if life ever existed on the red planet.