Dust storm on Mars delays flight of Ingenuity helicopter

Earth isn’t the only place where bad weather affects spaceflight. The weather on Mars can also be tricky and has been causing some problems with the planned flight of the Ingenuity helicopter lately.

Ingenuity was scheduled to make its 19th flight earlier this month, but a regional dust storm forced the team to delay for the safety of the helicopter. Still, the Ingenuity team and the situation humorously wrote, as two members of the Ingenuity Weather/Environment Team, Jonathan Bapst and Michael Mischna, wrote in an update: “In preparation for Flight 19, we learned that unexpected Mars weather could lead to down to a familiar and unfortunate scenario here on Earth: a delayed flight. Fortunately, Ingenuity doesn’t carry passengers and all his luggage is ‘hand luggage’, so the result is just waiting for better weather.”

Composite view of the presence of a regional dust storm obscuring the location of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (white circle).
Images taken on January 9, 2022 with the Mars Color Imager instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, were combined to create this image showing the presence of a regional dust storm that could identify the location of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (white circle). ) darkens. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars experiences dramatic dust storms that can cover entire regions or sometimes even the entire planet. Because the atmosphere is so thin and its gravity is lower than Earth’s, dust particles can easily be whipped up by the wind and create large dust storms; a phenomenon that occurs more often in certain seasons.

Predicting weather on Mars is a major challenge, but researchers can use instruments such as the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument aboard the Perseverance rover to measure factors such as wind speed and air density, which can better reflect weather phenomena such as dust storms. are predicted.

“A strong regional dust storm appeared on the first day of the new year, encompassing the Jezero crater, just as we planned Flight 19. The presence of this storm came quite early – even before the dusty season traditionally begins! In fact, we have never seen a storm of this magnitude so early in the Martian year,” Bapst and Mischna wrote.

When the weather team picked up evidence of a growing dust storm, they decided to postpone Ingenuity’s flight. “The data we analyze from MEDA and orbital assets can be delayed from a few hours to a few days, so we had to make a forecast for Flight 19 a few days into the future,” they wrote. “It was clear that there was great uncertainty on the horizon. The weather team recommended that flight 19 be postponed, which was eventually adopted by the Ingenuity team.”

The good news is that the dust storm in the area has now cleared, allowing Ingenuity to continue its next flight. It is now scheduled for January 23 at the earliest.

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