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NASA’s Mars helicopter flies again and gets a new mission

Ingenuity, NASA’s little Mars helicopter that could fly a little longer.

The little flying robot made history a week and a half ago as the first motorized plane to take off on another world. On Friday, his fourth flight went further and faster than ever.

That wasn’t the only good news NASA had about the helicopter on Friday.

At a press conference earlier today, the space agency announced it was extending the life of Ingenuity by an additional 30 Martian days, bringing the mission into a new phase. Now that Ingenuity engineers have demonstrated that it is possible to fly in the fine airs of Mars, they will explore how it can be used as an aerial scout for its larger robotic companion, the Perseverance rover.

“It’s like Ingenuity is coming out of the technology demonstration phase,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said at a press conference on Friday.

Previously, it seemed that the helicopter’s life was quickly coming to an end. The 30 Martian days that had been allotted for Ingenuity’s test flights were due to end next week, and plans were then to give up, never to fly again.

Ingenuity – just 1.6 feet tall and 4 pounds in weight – is an $ 85 million add-on to Perseverance, NASA’s latest $ 2.7 billion rover, which landed on Mars in February. The helicopter is the first to fly like a plane or a helicopter over another world.

Ingenuity’s flight expansion reflects not only the success of the helicopter, but also the desire of planetary scientists in Perseverance to explore its current environment, near where it landed in February, instead of Head immediately to an ancient dried up river delta to look for signs of past Martian life.

On the fourth flight, Ingenuity used its camera to search for a new base for future flights. On his fifth flight, he will make a one-way trip to the new spot. From there, he’ll make maybe one or two more flights in May.

Ms Aung said the helicopter could conduct reconnaissance to help plan where Perseverance will lead, take photos of areas too rugged for the rover to travel to and produce stereo images to map elevations in the Martian landscape.

“The lessons learned from this exercise will be of great benefit to future missions with the aerial platforms,” she said.

Ingenuity took off in the middle of the Martian day on Friday – on Earth it was 10:49 a.m. EST. After reaching an elevation of 16 feet, it headed south for 436 feet, flying over boulders, ripples of sand, and small craters. He hovered, took photos with his color camera, then returned to his starting point, which NASA named Wright Brothers Field.

The flight traveled more than twice the distance of the previous trip five days earlier. This time, Ingenuity also flew for a longer period – 117 seconds versus 80 seconds on the third flight – and faster, reaching a top speed of 8 miles per hour.

The success follows a failed robbery attempt on Thursday. The cause was the recurrence of a problem encountered earlier this month.

In a test on April 9 to spin the helicopter’s rotors at full speed without taking off, startup activities took longer than expected, and Ingenuity’s computers instead shut down the engines instead of switching. in “flight mode”.

During a week of troubleshooting, engineers came up with a software fix, but decided not to install it on Ingenuity due to the small but possible chance that a bug in the new software could cause even more problems. serious, just like upgrading your computer’s operating system. may cause the software to crash.

The stakes are even higher when the computer is on another planet 187 million kilometers away.

Instead, the engineers opted for a simpler solution: leave the software on Ingenuity intact but adjust the commands sent from Earth to Mars. This largely eliminated the problem, but it was not a perfect solution. Tests on Earth have shown that a timing error still occurs 15% of the time.

But the engineers also knew that if the error recurred, they could just try again the next day, and the second attempt would most likely succeed. This is exactly what happened on Friday.

Once Ingenuity continues to function and prove useful, NASA could continue to extend its lifespan.

Ms Aung and Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said the helicopter was designed to last only 30 Martian days and they couldn’t say how long it would stay in working order. But Dr Balaram also said that Ingenuity’s lifespan is not inherently limited. The helicopter recharges its batteries using solar panels, so it will not run out of fuel, for example.

A top speed of 8 miles per hour might not seem particularly fast, but the robotic helicopter has to fly over an alien landscape without the help of engineers on Earth. It uses a downward-facing camera to map the landscape below, and if it flew too fast it could lose track of where it was and possibly crash.

However, Ingenuity hasn’t flown higher than 16 feet on the last three flights, even though its two four-foot-wide counter-rotating blades generate enough lift to go higher above the ground. This is largely a limitation of its altimeter, which measures height by bouncing a laser off the ground and noting the time it takes for the reflected light to return to the sensor.

Dr Balaram said the elevation of 16 feet was an “sweet spot” that provides good resolution for images used for navigation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if at a particular location we were asked to go to a higher point of view,” Dr Balaram said. The helicopter could go up to about 32 feet without causing any altimeter problems and “providing panoramic-type images that could be of use to rover operators or scientists.”

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