Nasa believes Ingenuity Mars helicopter will lift off this time. Here’s why

  • Nasa had previously postponed the first flight attempt of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after an issue was flagged during a high-speed test of the rotor blades.
Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter does a slow spin test of its blades, on April 8, 2021.(Nasa/JPL-Caltech)
Nasa’s Ingenuity helicopter does a slow spin test of its blades, on April 8, 2021.(Nasa/JPL-Caltech)
Updated on Apr 18, 2021 05:04 PM IST
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By | Edited by Kunal Gaurav, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Nasa has completed a full-spin speed test of the Ingenuity helicopter and the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is going to attempt on Monday the first-ever controlled flight on Mars after multiple delays. The US space agency had previously postponed the flight attempt after an issue was flagged during a high-speed test of the rotor blades.

Nasa JPL then revealed that the watchdog timer, which alerts the system about any potential issues, expiration occurred when the command sequence was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars helicopter project manager at Nasa's JPL, explained why they are optimistic about the helicopter taking off from the Martian surface this time.

Aung wrote in a blog post that the team has been testing two solutions to address the watchdog timer issue that prevented the helicopter from transitioning to ‘Flight’ mode. The first solution was to adjust the command sequence from Earth to slightly alter the timing of this transition. It required adding a few commands to the flight operations sequence and was tested on both Earth and Mars.

“From testing this technique on Ingenuity over the last few days, we know this approach is likely to allow us to transition to flight mode and prepare for lift-off about 85% of the time,” the project manager wrote.

“This solution leaves the helicopter safe if the transition to flight mode is not completed. On Friday, we employed this solution to perform our first-ever high-speed spin test on Mars,” she added.

Aung said that the first solution is the least disruptive to a helicopter since the team doesn’t need to change its configuration, and the Ingenuity has been behaving just as expected. However, if the first plan doesn’t work after subsequent attempts in the days following, the team has a backup plan which requires modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software.

The Ingenuity helicopter team at the JPL has transmitted the new software for the second solution to Nasa’s Perseverance rover, which acts as the helicopter’s base station on Mars. The rover will send the new flight control software to the helicopter and the team would require several additional days for preparing to “load and test the new software on Ingenuity, redo the rotor tests in this new configuration, and recycle for a first flight attempt.”

“Our team considers Monday’s attempted first flight like a rocket launch: We’re doing everything we can to make it a success, but we also know that we may have to scrub and try again,” Aung said.

The rotorcraft weighing 1.8 kilograms is set to take off on Monday at 12:31am PDT (1:01pm IST) and hover 10 feet above the surface for up to 30 seconds. Data from the first flight attempt will return to Earth a few hours following the autonomous flight. The live coverage confirming Ingenuity’s first flight will begin at 3:15am PDT (3:45 pm IST) on Monday on Nasa’s website, app, and television. It will also be live-streamed on multiple social media platforms of the US space agency, including the JPL YouTube and Facebook channels.

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