Banding together for direct-to-smartphone satellite services

TAMPA, Fla. — Viasat is considering investing in spacecraft with other Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) operators as the promise of direct-to-smartphone technology drives unprecedented cooperation among historically isolated networks.

“What you’ve seen in MSS in the past is every operator has to have its own satellite, its own ground segment, its own type of terminals [and] they only use their own spectrum,” Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said.

“But what we’re envisioning is creating an environment where you can roam from MSS operator to MSS operator seamlessly, and you can do that in different geographies or within the same geography.”

Pooling radiowaves in the same area could deliver more capacity for direct-to-smartphone services, enabling higher bandwidth text, voice, and data capabilities for phones outside cellular coverage.

Dankberg is chair of the Mobile Satellite Services Association (MSSA), a non-profit group of MSS operators founded in February to push the fledgling direct-to-smartphone market to adopt their radio waves, rather than spectrum sourced from terrestrial mobile network operators.

Other founding MSSA members include Terrestar Solutions, Ligado Networks, Omnispace, and Yahsat. Iridium Communications has also said it is considering joining MSSA after pivoting from a proprietary direct-to-smartphone strategy to an open network approach.

MSS operator Globalstar, which thanks to its close relationship with Apple has been enabling space-based SOS services on the latest iPhones since late 2022, is not part of MSSA.

“A satellite is just a cell tower in space,” Dankberg said in an interview. “The payload is what does the work. So just like in terrestrial, where you can put a payload — or a network — from multiple carriers on the same tower, why can’t we make the same satellites for all of our needs?”

Similar to how cell tower companies operate on the ground, he said sharing infrastructure in space could save costs and attract capital.

“We can have tower companies in space that can serve all of us [and are] far more capital efficient,” he added, “we can do similar things with ground infrastructure in particular markets.”

Coordination agreements among MSS operators currently separate them from each other to avoid radio wave interference. Through MSSA, the operators hope to create a standards-based framework that could pave the way for contractual agreements to share and empower their orbital resources. 

Partnerships mobile network operators have with cell tower companies on the ground include leasing and revenue-sharing business models. 

Dankberg pointed to Indian cellular operator Reliance Jio, which has helped lower barriers to entry through partnerships with power companies, network providers, and handset makers.

“What we’re looking to do is to figure out which of those we can replicate in what sequence,” he said.

“Maybe the MSS operators themselves cooperate, maybe third parties come in to invest in the space segment.”

The aim is to help build scale globally and drive out costs as direct-to-smartphone operators SpaceX, Lynk Global, and AST SpaceMobile seek more mobile network operator partners for their terrestrial spectrum approach.

“Coopertition is kind of the buzzword for that,” Dankberg added, “whereby cooperating we make the market bigger and we compete on that larger market, but that’s a way better way to compete than on the small market scales that at the MSS operators have now.”

According to Dankberg, existing regulations already support MSS spectrum pooling, and it is up to MSSA members to coordinate among themselves.

Regulatory clarity is one of the strengths of the MSS direct-to-smartphone approach because these radio waves are already cleared for use from space, although services to standard smartphones must wait for standardized chips to be released.

Satellites using cellular radio waves can reach smartphones already in circulation because these devices use these frequencies with land-based cell towers. 

However, these terrestrial partnerships must first navigate new rules that must be put in place to guard against the possibility of interference in each country they wish to operate in.

The United States is taking the lead on this, and the Federal Communications Commission recently issued nationwide ground rules for what it calls Supplemental Coverage from Space that is expected to inspire other countries.

Meanwhile, Lynk Global is currently enabling intermittent texting services with five satellites in parts of a handful of island nations. Like fellow early-stage venture AST SpaceMobile, which does not expect to launch initial commercial satellites until at least July, Lynk is seeking more capital to expand its constellation.

Leveraging significantly greater financial resources, SpaceX aims to enable direct-to-smartphone texting services in the United States this year, with voice and data services slated to come soon after.

Omnispace, however, has warned that SpaceX’s plans to use T-Mobile’s cellular radio waves from space could cause interference that would derail its proposed MSS constellation.

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JPL chief Laurie Leshin on science, Mars and budget infighting

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is home base for building pioneering spacecraft that have probed every planet in our solar system, including the Sun.

Federally funded by NASA and managed by Caltech, JPL and its cadre of engineers and scientists are led by Laurie Leshin, the first woman to serve as JPL director, who took on the role in May 2022 following a career as a geochemist in academia and NASA.

Leshin points to space technology achievements, but has also been plagued by program setbacks and space budget woes, especially regarding the JPL-led Mars Sample Return project.

Leshin spoke with SpaceNews about JPL’s path forward and steps to retain and bolster the revered laboratory’s capabilities.

How do you characterize your concerns about NASA’s overall budget and its impact on JPL?

There is good news for sure, such as the VERITAS Venus orbiter coming back and that we’re now re-planning and ramping back up. Most of the [NASA] science budget is fairly flat which, while not great, is not terrible. Planetary science, however, finds itself in a very, very difficult position. It is a fairly unprecedented threat to the nation’s deep space capability which is resident at JPL, so I have major concerns.

How impactful were February’s budget-related layoffs on the lab’s future?

We hire only great people. So we will miss all those who were laid off. We’re supporting them in every way we can think of through their transition. While it cut to depth, it did not eliminate any core capability. We worked very hard in spite of having to make the deep cuts and to make sure those capabilities were intact.

What is an example of a core capability at JPL?

Our nation’s Mars exploration capability is resident at the lab. No other organization has landed on Mars in the United States except us — with partners always, but we have led every one of those missions. But if the budget challenges continue or decisions continue to be deferred, those capabilities will be at risk. I don’t know how to say it other than that.

Our job as a nation is to have some hard conversations about what being spacefaring for the future really means. How do we make sure that there’s Mars in our moon-to-Mars program? There’s no moon-to-Mars without Mars and there’s no Mars without JPL.

Any other NASA budget concerns?

A science versus human spaceflight moment is not good for our community. We all need to pull together to support the diverse portfolio that NASA has. In tight budget times, we tend to fight with each other and that is always a bad idea.

JPL leads the development of the Europa Clipper mission. All on track for liftoff this October?

Europa Clipper just came out of JPL’s thermal vacuum chamber. You shake it. You bake it. You look for magnetic cleanliness. End-to-end missions tests to simulate launch, solar array deployment, deep space cruise, orbit insertion at Jupiter, flybys of Europa. We’ve done all of that. We’re in really good shape. We’re on track to ship it to Florida in the May timeframe and get it ready to fly on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

There’s another look looming at the costly and complex Mars Sample Return program. What’s coming?

I can’t talk about it at this time. That review is coming relatively soon… to be released in the spring. NASA has funding challenges. It’s a really important set of decisions they are making. Mars Sample Return was the next big thing at JPL. So we need to make sure that gets back on track as quickly as possible.

So you see a way forward for Mars Sample Return?

It’s a difficult moment. There’s a way to move forward with this mission that will cost less on an annual basis than the prior plan and it’s very much in line with what we’ve spent on other large missions. NASA has a chance to go down that path. I hope they will… and then I’ll breathe.

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Astrobotic and Mission Control to partner on lunar rover mission

COLORADO SPRINGS — Astrobotic is partnering with Canadian space software company Mission Control on a small rover that will go to the Moon on Astrobotic’s next lander mission.

The two companies announced April 8 that they will use Mission Control’s Spacefarer software to operate Astrobotic’s first CubeRover, which will go to the moon on Astrobotic’s Griffin-1 lander scheduled for no earlier than late this year. The CubeRover will be one of several secondary payloads on that lander, which will also deliver NASA’s VIPER rover.

The shoebox-sized rover will test its maneuverability and communications on this first mission. It will also demonstrate the Spacefarer software’s ability to control the rover, including semi-autonomous navigation across the surface and analysis of images taken by the rover’s cameras.

“We chose to work with Mission Control because of the extensive capabilities that they have in Spacefarer and also the very simple interface they built,” said Mike Provenzano, vice president of advanced development programs at Astrobotic, during a briefing at the 39th Space Symposium.

Spacefarer is a cloud-based mission operations tool, said Ewan Reid, founder and chief executive of Mission Control, providing easy access to telemetry and other data as well as the ability to command a spacecraft through a point-and-click interface. It provides, he said, “all sorts of different tools that users need to try to make the best smartest decisions in the shortest amount of time.”

The software will enable distributed control for CubeRover, with mission operations handled both at Astrobotic’s Pittsburgh headquarters and Mission Control’s Ottawa headquarters. “It’s truly going to be a joint mission with operators at both locations,” said Provenzano. “That’s really exciting and something that Spacefarer enabled.”

Mission Control flew a version of Spacefarer on another lunar lander mission, ispace’s HAKUTO-R M1 lander, but that spacecraft crashed attempting to land on the moon in April 2023. Reid said that the software would have been able to receive and analyze data from that lander but not command it.

Flying Spacefarer on CubeRover, he said, will help Mission Control open up new opportunities for his company, demonstrating that Spacefarer can handle operations of spacecraft. Those customers, he argued, can focus on their specific technologies, “and they don’t have to reinvent the wheel for an operations platform.”

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) stimulated the development of Spacefarer through its Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP), intended to help Canadian companies demonstrate technologies for lunar missions. “The CSA recognizes that without that step in our development timeline, without having validated something that has flown and operated on a real mission, it’s very hard for us to sell it around the world,” Reid said.

“Commercial companies are at the very beginning of creating a new market and economy at the moon,” said CSA President Lisa Campbell. “LEAP was created to provide thias wide range of opportunities for Canadian science and technology activities in lunar orbit, on the moon’s surface and beyond.”

She said the agreement between Astrobotic and Mission Control is “validating something that we believe in at the agency, which is we need to try things, we need to be bold. The world wants more of what Canada has to offer.”

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ISS schedule conflicts delay Starliner crewed test flight to May

WASHINGTON — The first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has slipped from late April to early May because of International Space Station schedule conflicts and not due to any issues with the spacecraft itself.

In a media advisory released by NASA late March 8, the agency said the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, previously scheduled to launch no earlier than April 22, was now scheduled for early March. The agency said the slip was “due to space station scheduling” but did not elaborate.

At recent briefings, NASA managers said the key factor in the schedule for CFT was other missions to the station. “What we’ve been doing is watching how we progress with the Crew-8 launch and the CRS-30 mission,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, in a briefing after the March 3 launch of SpaceX’s Crew-8 mission to the ISS.

SpaceX’s CRS-30 cargo mission is scheduled for launch in mid-March and will stay at the station for about a month. After it departs, the Crew-8 spacecraft will move from its current forward docking port on the Harmony module to the zenith port to allow Starliner to use the forward port. Those ports are the only two available on the station for both Starliner and Dragon spacecraft.

“The thing that’s pacing when we go fly is really this complicated traffic management,” Stich said.

At that briefing and earlier ones, Stich said that preparations for Starliner itself were going well. “The spacecraft is in really good shape. There’s not much work left to go,” he said at a Feb. 25 briefing.

He said then that NASA and Boeing had addressed technical issues that delayed CFT from last summer, including performing a final parachute test in January to confirm the performance of redesigned links in those parachute lines to increase their strength as well as the removal of wiring tape inside the spacecraft found to be flammable. They also resolved issues with valves in a thermal control system.

“Those three big issues that we had last summer have been resolved and we’re in the middle of some final certification work on the parachutes and a few other things,” Stich said.

The CFT mission, launching on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, will send NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS. They will remain on the station for up to two weeks before returning to Earth. A successful flight would clear the way for NASA certification of the spacecraft for crew rotation missions, starting with Starliner-1 in early 2025.

NASA separately announced March 8 plans for the return of Crew-7, which has been on the ISS since late August 2023. The agency said that the four members of Crew-7 — NASA’s Jasmin Moghbeli, ESA’s Andreas Mogensen, JAXA’s Satoshi Furukawa and Roscosmos’ Konstantin Borisov — will depart in their Crew Dragon spacecraft at 11:05 a.m. Eastern March 10. The spacecraft would splash down off the Florida coast March 12 at 5:35 a.m. Eastern.

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Webinar – Beyond Earth: Blueprint for Small Medium Business (SMB) Innovation

Date: March 14th, 2024
Time
: 1 PM ET

Dassault Systemes

Join us on Thursday, March 14, 2024 to unlock your business’s potential with our webinar on Space Innovation. Register below.

SpaceNews host Matt Alderton discusses Dassault Systèmes Blueprint for Small Medium Business (SMB) Innovation with Jason Roberson and Lauren Cooper.

Dassault Systèmes, the 3DEXPERIENCE Company, is a catalyst for human progress.

We provide business and people with collaborative virtual environments to imagine sustainable innovations.

By creating ‘virtual twin experiences’ of the real world with our 3DEXPERIENCE platform and applications, our customers push the boundaries of innovation, learning and production.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud provides you with a complete suite of industry-leading apps and software. It gives you everything you need to bring your ideas to reality, including design & engineering, manufacturing & production, simulation, governance & collaboration.

Learn more about the 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud and the future of space technology.

Matt Alderton
SpaceNews Host

Jason Roberson
Dassault Systèmes

Lauren Cooper
Dassault Systèmes


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Webinar: One-on-One with SDA Director Derek Tournear

Date: March 6th, 2024
Time
: 11 AM ET

Join us on Wednesday, March 6, 2024 for an exclusive online event with Derek Tournear, Director of the Space Development Agency (SDA), as we take a look back at SDA’s remarkable journey over the past 5 years.

In just half a decade, the SDA has been at the forefront of space innovation, utilizing government demand in new ways to build the Defense Department’s first low Earth orbit constellation, known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

Director Tournear will share the most significant lessons SDA has learned from its projects and collaborations with the private sector, and how these lessons will influence the agency’s strategies moving forward.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to hear from the leader of one of the most dynamic and innovative agencies in the space sector.

Derek M. Tournear
Director
Space Development Agency

Sandra Irwin
Senior Staff Writer
SpaceNews

As threats become faster and more elusive, L3Harris is helping the U.S. military build a robust constellation of missile warning and defense satellites to stay ahead.

Our technology plays a key role on several U.S. missile warning and defense satellite programs, including those for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency and Space Systems Command as well as the Missile Defense Agency.

In fact, we recently launched five missile tracking satellites into low-Earth orbit for the Space Development Agency and Missile Defense Agency.

These demonstration satellites will help enable missile defeat – from detection to intercept. LEARN MORE.


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Lockheed Martin ramping up small satellite production

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin is experiencing a growth spurt in an unexpected corner of its business: small satellites. While traditionally known for its expertise in GPS and giant geostationary (GEO) satellites, the company has quietly built a backlog of 100 smallsats on order from Department of Defense and intelligence customers.

“This is probably a different picture than many of you may have in our minds” about what the company does, Johnathon Caldwell, head of Lockheed Martin’s military space business, told a military conference Feb. 14.

Speaking at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Warfare Conference in Aurora, Colorado, Caldwell said a greater focus on small satellites began with the company’s pursuit of Space Development Agency contracts. SDA is building a proliferated mesh network of satellites in low Earth orbit for the Defense Department, and unlike traditional cost-plus defense programs, the agency demands fixed-price bids from satellite manufacturers.

Lockheed Martin last year opened a new smallsat assembly facility near Denver, Colorado, with capacity to manufacture 180 spacecraft per year. Most of Lockheed’s smallsats are made with buses from Terran Orbital.

Upcoming tech demo

Caldwell said the smallsat business has to operate with the mentality of a startup. Taking advantage of the new production line, the company is funding its own space missions to demonstrate technologies that it believes the government will want to buy. 

In 2022 it launched a satellite-servicing demonstration mission and most recently in December an antenna experiment that ended up in the wrong orbit.

The next experiment, called Pony Express 2, is scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s upcoming Transporter 10 smallsat rideshare. Two Terran Orbital Renegade-class cubesats will attempt to form a Ka-band mesh network in space.

“They will demonstrate a handful of interesting new technologies that we’ve been investing in through our venture fund,” said Caldwell.

These include open standards mesh networking and autonomous tasking of satellites. He said the company will allow military units to use the satellites in wargames and exercises.

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Uruguay signs Artemis Accords

WASHINGTON — Uruguay signed the Artemis Accords outlining best practices in space exploration Feb. 15, the second country in as many weeks to do so.

In a ceremony at NASA Headquarters, Omar Paganini, foreign minister of Uruguay, signed the Accords on the behalf of the country. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other officials from both the United States and Uruguay attended the signing.

“We are honored to have the opportunity to introduce space cooperation as a new chapter in the robust bilateral agenda between Uruguay and the U.S.,” Paganini said in a statement about the signing, calling it “the beginning of a new bilateral track” of cooperation between the countries.

Uruguay does not have a significant space program, but announced last year plans to establish a national space agency. Uruguay has hosted the headquarters of Satellogic, a company developing a constellation of Earth observation satellites, although the company said in September it planned to redomicile the company in the United States to allow it to compete for U.S. government business.

The signing took place as part of bilateral ministerial meetings between the United States and Uruguay. In a readout of those meetings, the U.S. State Department said the United States “agreed to support Uruguay exploring civilian and commercial space industries,” but did not elaborate on those plans.

“The United States and Uruguay share a commitment to democracy and peace, and now, we expand these principles in the cosmos to commit to the safe and transparent exploration of space,” Nelson said in a statement about the signing.

Uruguay is the 36th country to sign the Accords, established in 2020, and the second in as many weeks after Greece signed the documents Feb. 9. The signatories range from countries with advanced space programs to those like Uruguay that are only starting to develop space capabilities.

The Artemis Accords outline best practices for countries to follow in space exploration activities, building upon the Outer Space Treaty and other international agreements on topics ranging from registration of space objects to utilization of space resources.

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Chinese rocket engine startup Space Circling secures funding

HELSINKI — Chinese launch firm Space Circling has secured more than 100 million yuan ($13.9 million) in funding to back its work on innovative engines to power commercial space activities.

Space Circling, also known as Shaanxi Tianhui Aerospace Technology Co., Ltd., secured the funding in December last year and announced the Series A funding Feb. 18.

Strategic investors including Changsha Kaifu District Zhongxin High-tech Fund, Mianyang Kefa Fund, Xi’an Fulao Fund, SIRI New Materials and Xi’an Talent Fund participated in the round. The latter is a local government-backed policy guidance fund. Such funds are used to deploy capital to strategic and emerging technologies such as space.

The funding will mainly go towards construction of an industrial base for the company’s rocket engines, including mass production.

Space Circling has been developing its Honglong-1 and Qiaolong-1 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engines since it was established in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, in March 2021.

The Qiaolong-1 is a staged combustion, tap-off cycle with two combustion chambers. It has no gas generator in order to simplify its structure, according to Space Circling. It is designed to produce 85 tons of thrust at sea level and able to fit five engines into a 3.35-meter-diameter stage — a standard sizing among Chinese Long March and commercial launch vehicles. Space Circling conducted a successful hotfire test of the engine Jan. 31.

The company aims to be mass-producing the Qiaolong-1 by the end of the year. This is in order to meet the current urgent demand for high-thrust liquid rocket engines in China’s domestic commercial aerospace sector, founder Liu Hongjun told Shaanxi Daily Feb. 18. 

The report did not touch on potential technical hurdles during further development, testing, and mass production phases of the innovative engine which may hinder progress.

Liu is a professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi. The company apparently has local backing as well as experience from, and connections to, the state-owned space industry.

Liu was notably the chief designer for a kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine at the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology under CASC, China’s state-owned main space contractor. The engine was developed to help power China’s new-generation launchers which debuted in the 2010s. He also served as deputy chief designer of one of these rockets, namely the Long March 6. 

Liu said in a statement on Space Circling’s webpages that the team aims to, “fundamentally reduce the cost of human access to space and promote the arrival of a new economic era in space,” as well as work hard for the “China Dream,” referencing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concept of a strong, rejuvenated China.

Space Circling is also apparently planning to develop its own reusable launchers using its engines. The Huilong-1 would have a length of 38 meters, a 3.35-meter-diameter core stage and 2.25-meter-diameter boosters. It is to be capable of lifting five metric tons to sun-synchronous orbit. 

The larger Huilong-2 would be capable of carrying nine tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit or 25 tons to LEO.

Provincial support for space

Shaanxi hosts a number of major state-owned CASC institutes related to rocket and engine development and testing. A number of more recently-established commercial companies have also settled in the area. 

The province has moved to establish strategic laboratories to support companies such as Space Circling. The wider goal is promoting the integration of innovation and industry chains. Assistance includes technical support, talent guarantees and financial assistance.

This approach is far from unique within China. A range of Chinese cities and provinces are currently seeking to foster their own commercial space and other high-end and strategy technologies. Beijing and Shanghai have recently released action plans to support commercial space ecosystems. Beijing’s plans included committing to establish a “Beijing Rocket Street” including a reusable rocket technology innovation center.

Underpinning this, the central government identified the commercial space industry as one of several strategic emerging industries to nurture in December 2023. Supporting this sector could potentially enhance China’s overall space capabilities. It could also boost international ties, national prestige, and China’s influence in the global space arena.

China’s military-civil fusion strategy has helped the transfer of technologies between the military and commercial spheres in both directions. This strategy has helped Chinese commercial space firms in China progress, with assistance from state-owned space giants, following the 2014 central government move to open the sector to private capital.

China is looking to construct one or more low Earth orbit communications megaconstellations of more than 10,000 satellites each in the coming years. Deploying these satellites will require a boost in China’s launch options. 

A number of Chinese commercial firms are racing to develop and test reusable launch vehicles in order to fill this gap in overall national capabilities and earn launch contracts. 

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Ingenuity Mars helicopter mission ends after 72 flights

Updated 6:45 p.m. Eastern with comments from press briefing.

WASHINGTON — NASA has declared the end of the mission for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter after 72 flights, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.

NASA announced Jan. 25 that at least one of Ingenuity’s rotor blades sustained damage on its most recent flight Jan. 18. On that flight, contact between the helicopter and the Perseverance Mars rover was interrupted during the helicopter’s descent, but restored the following day.

“It is bittersweet that I must announce that Ingenuity, the little helicopter that could,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video message on social media, “has now taken its last flight on Mars.”

The Jan. 18 flight was intended to be a simple up-and-down flight to determine the helicopter’s location after it executed an emergency landing on its previous flight Jan. 6. The helicopter ascended to its planned altitude of 12 meters and hovered for 4.5 seconds before beginning its descent at a speed of one meter per second. Contact was interrupted when Ingenuity was about one meter above the surface.

While Ingenuity is upright and in communication with controllers, images it returned showed damage to the tip of one of its rotor blades. “We’re investigating the possibility that the blade struck the ground,” Nelson said. NASA said in a statement it was still studying what caused the loss of communications and how the helicopter landed.

An image returned by Ingenuity after its 72nd flight included a shadow of one of its rotors, showing damage to the blade sustained on the flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a call with reporters, Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said about 25% of the rotor blade was lost, rendering Ingenuity unflyable. He said given the speed of the rotors — about 2,500 rpm — it is likely other blades were also damaged at landing, something the project team hopes to confirm with additional images. No other major subsystems on the helicopter show signs of damage.

“Whether or not the blade strike occurred, which led to the communications loss, or there was a communications loss and a power brownout which then led to the rotor strike, we will never know,” he said, because of a loss of data during the incident, but added that the project team would try to piece together their best guess of what happened with the data they do get.

One possibility is that the featureless terrain that Ingenuity was flying over may have confused the helicopter’s navigation system. Such systems work by tracking features on the surface and correlating them, throwing out spurious ones. “The danger is when you run out of features, you don’t have very many to navigate on. You’re not able to establish what that consensus is and you end up tracking the wrong kinds of features,” said Håvard Grip, the “pilot emeritus” for Ingenuity, on the call.

In such a scenario, he said, the helicopter may think it’s moving horizontally away from its target landing site and overcorrects. “It’s likely it made an aggressive maneuver to try and correct that upon landing, and that would have accounted for sideways motion and tilted the helicopter,” he said. That could either have caused a blade to strike the ground or to lose power before landing.

History and legacy

Ingenuity was included on the Mars 2020 mission with the Perseverance rover as a technology demonstration, with plans to perform no more than five flights over one month. The inclusion of Ingenuity was originally controversial because of concerns by scientists that helicopter operations would detract from the rover’s mission.

Ingenuity made its first flight on Mars in April 2021, two months after the Perseverance landing. Those flights went so well that NASA decided to extend Ingenuity’s mission beyond the planned five flights. Ingenuity was repurposed into an aerial scout for Perseverance. Over its 72 flights Ingenuity traveled about 17 kilometers and spent more than two hours in the air.

The success of Ingenuity helped alter plans for NASA’s efforts to return samples from Mars being collected by Perseverance. NASA announced in July 2022 that it would fly two helicopters based on Ingenuity on a future Sample Retrieval Lander mission in place of a rover that would have been provided by the European Space Agency. The helicopters would be used to pick up a cache of samples left by Perseverance on the Martian surface and bring them to the lander if that rover is not able to directly deliver other samples it has collected to the lander.

“Ingenuity absolutely shattered our paradigm of exploration in introducing this new dimension of aerial mobility,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, on the call.

It also vindicated a strategy of flying technology demonstrations along with science missions on a “do-no-harm” basis that can feed forward into future missions. Another example is the Deep Space Optical Communications payload on the Psyche mission that successfully streamed a high-definition video to Earth from a distance of 31 million kilometers last month.

“These missions lay the foundation for a bright future,” said Laurie Leshin, director of JPL, on the call. “It’s so critically important that we continue to look for places, look for opportunities, to fly these things, to get that flight experience.”

“People love these demos. They love to see how we can push the boundaries,” she added.

NASA donated a prototype of Ingenuity, used for ground tests, to the National Air and Space Museum last month. Tzanetos said then that the experience flying Ingenuity was helping the design of the helicopters planned for Mars Sample Return, such as improved atmospheric and thermal modeling.

“We had all imagined while working on Ingenuity that our kids’ generation or our grandchildren’s generation were then going to build the second version,” he said at the Dec. 15 event where NASA donated the Ingenuity model to the museum. “We never imagined that, while Ingenuity was still flying, we would be working on the next version of helicopters for Mars.”


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