NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter was due to embark on Thursday for its most daring flight to date. But it failed to take off, so NASA plans to try again on Friday.
The ingenuity made history when it first flew on April 19 – a 10-foot hover that marked the first controlled and powered flight on any other planet. Since then, the 4-pound drone has made two more flights, venturing further and flying faster each time.
Ingenuity was in good shape after his last flight, during which he covered about 330 feet round trip. He was to attempt an even more ambitious adventure on Thursday: a 117-second flight in which the small drone was supposed to reach a record speed of 3.5 meters per second. The plan was for the helicopter to rise 16 feet into the air, fly south about 436 feet, and take photos of the Martian surface en route. It was then supposed to hover for more photos, turn around and return to its original location for landing.
But Ingenuity’s rotor blades didn’t lift it at all.
The culprit is probably a software glitch that first appeared during a high speed spin test before the helicopter first flew. This test failed because the Ingenuity flight computer was unable to switch from “pre-flight” mode to “flight” mode. Within days, NASA engineers fixed the problem with a quick rewrite of the software.
But these engineers determined that their fix would only successfully put the helicopter into flight mode 85% of the time. Data transmitted by Ingenuity on Thursday indicated that it could not switch to airplane mode – so it may have hit one of the 15% of cases where the hotfix does not work.
“Today’s delay is in line with that expectation and does not prevent future flights,” NASA said.
The helicopter is “safe and healthy,” the agency said, and will attempt its fourth flight again on Friday at 10:46 a.m. ET. NASA engineers expect to receive the first data from this attempt about three hours later.
The Ingenuity team only has one week to complete two flights that would push the helicopter to its limits. On the fifth and final flight, Ingenuity’s controllers plan to push the helicopter as far and as fast as possible. In the process, they expect Ingenuity to crash.
“We really want to push rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information from that,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said at a press briefing last week.
“This information is extremely important,” she added. “He’s a scout. It’s about, you know, finding out if there are any ‘unknowns’ that we can’t model. And we really want to know what the boundaries are. So we’re going to push the boundaries. very deliberately. “
NASA Space Drone Dreams
Ingenuity’s flights are experimental, intended simply to test what rotorcraft technology can do on Mars. NASA therefore expected some of the attempts to fail. It’s all in the best interests of collecting data to inform the development of helicopter missions to other planets, which could do all kinds of science and exploration that a rover mission can’t.
“We realize that failure is more likely in this type of scenario, and we are comfortable with it because of the success potential of success,” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told Insider.
Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could one day survey difficult terrain from above, survey large areas faster than a rover can, and even do reconnaissance for astronauts.
Such space drones could fly “over ravines, in canyons, in mountains,” Josh Ravich, mechanical manager of the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. “Even rocky terrain is quite inaccessible to rovers but much more easily accessible by rotorcraft.”
NASA already has a helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is about to launch to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027. It aims to determine whether this methane-rich world could host alien life.
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