Science

NASA announces 'first flight delay due to inclement weather on another world'

The Ingenuity helicopter was grounded thanks to a dust storm on Mars.

NASA's Ingenuity rover poses on Mars in 2021.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Flight delays are a fact of life on Earth. Turns out they're a thing on Mars, too. NASA said Wednesday that the "first flight delay due to inclement weather on another world" had affected the activity schedule of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity. At least the little chopper won't have to sleep in an airport chair overnight.

Ingenuity has conducted 18 successful flights and was prepping for Flight 19 to take place Jan. 5. But a regional dust storm kicked up early in January in the Jezero Crater where the rotorcraft is exploring with its rover buddy Perseverance. The weather action forced a delay to no earlier than Jan. 23.

"Fortunately, Ingenuity carries no passengers, and all its luggage is 'carry-on,' so the consequence is little more than waiting for better weather,"  the Ingenuity team wrote in a status update.     

The seasons are changing in the crater as it moves from late summer into fall, but the dust storm was unexpected. "The presence of this storm came quite early – even before the dusty season traditionally starts! In fact, we have never seen a storm of this strength so early in the Mars year before," the team said.

This mosaic of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the regional dust storm (Jezero Crater area marked with a white circle) that forced a delay of Ingenuity's Flight 19. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA relies on data from orbiting spacecraft and a weather station on board Perseverance to help determine if conditions are good enough for Ingenuity to take off. The team had to make a call a few days ahead of time based on available data. It was a smart move to delay Flight 19 as the encroaching dust changed the atmospheric conditions in the crater and reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Ingenuity's solar array.

The red planet is notorious for dust storms. The InSight lander recently went into a protective safe mode during a dust storm, and the Opportunity rover hit its mission end due to the impact of a massive storm in 2018.  

The storm in Jezero has now eased, but NASA will take lessons from the weather forecasting work and flight decisions as it looks ahead to Mars' dusty season. There could be more delays ahead for the plucky helicopter.