Mars Ingenuity helicopter still flying more than a year

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If it flew, and that was a lot ifthe tiny helicopter would fly to the skies on Mars five times — at most — over a 31-day period.

But in the past year, the plucky little helicopter known as Ingenuity has taken to the skies of Mars 28 times, far exceeding expectations and giving scientists a new vantage point of the Red Planet. In the past 13 months, it has stayed in the air for a total of nearly an hour, traveled nearly 7.3 miles, reached a maximum speed of 12.3 mph and reached a top altitude of 13 meters.

It has traversed craters, captured images of regions hard to reach on the ground, and served as a surprisingly resilient explorer that has adapted to Mars’ changing atmosphere and survived harsh dust storms and frigid nights.

Now the engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are concerned that their four-pound, solar-powered drone on Mars is nearing the end of its life.

Winter begins on Mars. The dust builds up, covering Ingenuity’s solar panels and preventing it from fully charging its six lithium-ion batteries. This month, for the first time since it landed on Mars more than a year ago, Ingenuity missed a scheduled communication session with Perseverance, the Mars rover it relies on to send data and receive commands from Earth.

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Will a dust-covered Ingenuity survive a winter on Mars where temperatures routinely dip below minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit? And if not, how is the world supposed to remember the tiny helicopter that cost $80 million to develop and over five years to design and build? Those closest to the project say that as time goes on for Ingenuity, it’s hard to overestimate its performance.

“The helicopter has far exceeded those initial expectations,” Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, told The Washington Post.

Given the tenuous atmosphere of Mars, the scientists and engineers working on the Ingenuity were unsure whether the experiment would succeed. Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, said at the time it was an effort that forced NASA to find the “right line between crazy and innovative.”

So when the maiden flight, on April 19, 2021, was a success, NASA heralded it as a Wright Brothers moment. As a tribute, Ingenuity had a postage-sized piece of fabric from the brothers’ plane, known as the Flyer, attached to a cable under the solar panel.

Ingenuity flew to Mars tethered to the underbelly of the Perseverance Rover, the star of NASA’s most recent Mars mission. After covering some 300 million miles in seven months, Perseverance landed in a dramatic landing under a parachute in February 2021 with a secret code that read “Dare Mighty Things”.

The rover, the size of an SUV, landed in an area of ​​Mars known as Jezero Crater, which once held water and could provide clues about the planet’s history and whether life existed. The rover collects rocks and soil samples that NASA hopes will be returned to Earth in a future mission, and uses its seven instruments to conduct scientific experiments and test new technologies.

Ingenuity was something of an add-on, a technology demonstration that could prove useful for future missions and allow the space agency’s scientists to explore more of the Martian landscape than just by land.

But flying an autonomous drone on Mars would be extremely difficult. The atmosphere there is only 1 percent the density of Earth’s, so to generate lift, the helicopter’s four-foot-wide blades would have to spin incredibly fast — 2,500 revolutions per minute.

“We built it as an experiment,” Glaze said. “So it didn’t necessarily have the flight-qualified parts that we use on the big missions like Perseverance.” Some, such as smartphone components, were even bought off-the-shelf, so “there was a chance they wouldn’t perform in the environment as we expected. And so there was a risk that it wouldn’t work.”

As Ingenuity continued to fly, controllers on the ground began to realize that their little project could accomplish big things. Before the fifth flight, they wrote in a blog post that “our helicopter is even more robust than we had hoped. The power system we’ve been mulling over for years provides more than enough energy to run our heaters at night and fly during the day. The ready-made components for our guidance and navigation systems are also performing excellently, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it does just fine or better.”

As it continued to perform, NASA scientists became increasingly intrigued by the idea that perhaps this helicopter could become an integral part of the mission.

“What happened was, and this is really important, after Ingenuity performed so well on those first five flights, the Perseverance science team came up to us and said, ‘You know what, we want this helicopter to keep operating to help us. help in our exploration and achieve our scientific goals,” Glaze said.

So NASA decided to keep flying.

On the sixth flight, Ingenuity ran into problems. The helicopter navigates with a camera that takes 30 photos per second of the terrain below, each with a timestamp. An algorithm predicts what the camera should have seen at that moment based on images taken moments before. It then calculates the difference between the predicted location and the actual location of features of the ground to correct the position, speed and altitude.

But on this flight, the timestamps were out. As a result, Ingenuity looked like it was being flown by a drunk pilot, “adjusting its speed and tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern,” NASA said in the blog.

Still, it was able to land safely within 5 meters of its target due to “the considerable effort put into ensuring that the helicopter’s flight control system has sufficient ‘margin of stability,'” NASA wrote. In other words, “In a very real sense, Ingenuity has muscled through the situation.”

Flight 9, in July, was also a “nail-biter,” as NASA wrote. Not only because Ingenuity broke records for flight time and cruising speed, but because it flew over a crater, “an area called ‘Séítah’ that would be difficult to traverse by a ground vehicle like the Perseverance rover,” NASA wrote in its blog.

Because Ingenuity was designed as an experimental technology demonstration, engineers designed it to fly over mostly flat terrain, easier to navigate with the built-in camera. For this flight, however, Ingenuity would have to dive into the crater. That required it to reduce its speed and engineers to adjust its navigation algorithm. The flight was a success, and Ingenuity was able to return colored photos of the region, including a location that some believe has “recorded some of the deepest aquatic environments in ancient Lake Jezero,” NASA wrote. “Given the tight mission schedule, they may not be able to visit these rocks with the rover, so Ingenuity may be the only opportunity to study these deposits in detail.”

Since then, Ingenuity has persevered, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. At some point in September, it discovered an engine problem during preflight checkout “and did exactly what it was supposed to do: it canceled the flight.”

About a month later, the problem was resolved and it returned to flight.

In April, he made another discovery: He flew over the parachute that slowed the rover for its landing on Mars and saw the ruins of the shell that had protected the rover as it plunged to the surface of Mars. There was a few man-made objects sitting on another planet, images that “stunned me,” Glaze said. In the past, NASA was able to spot vehicles on the surface of Mars by a spacecraft in orbit far away. But here were pieces of hardware, up close, in such high resolution that the “Dare-Mighty-Things” encoded in the parachute were visible through a thin layer of red Martian dust.

Then, 10 days later, on April 29, it took its last flight to date, No. 28, a quarter-mile journey that lasted two and a half minutes. Now NASA wonders if that will be the last.

The space agency believes the helicopter’s inability to fully charge its batteries caused the helicopter to enter a low-power state. When idle, the clock onboard the helicopter was reset, as household clocks do after a power outage. So the next day, when the sun came up and started charging the batteries, the helicopter was out of sync with the rover: “Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance, the base station of the do not rover,” NASA wrote.

Then NASA did something extraordinary: Mission controllers ordered Perseverance to spend almost all of May 5 listening to the helicopter.

Finally little ingenuity called home.

The radio link, NASA said, “was stable,” the helicopter was healthy and the battery was charging at 41 percent.

But, as NASA warned, “one radio communication session doesn’t mean Ingenuity is out of the woods. The increased (light-reducing) dust in the air means charging the helicopter’s batteries to a level where key components (such as the clock and heaters) being able to keep power all night long is a big challenge.”

Maybe Ingenuity is flying again. Maybe not.

“Right now I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” Glaze said. “We are still trying to find a way to fly it again. But perseverance is the primary mission, so we need to start by setting our expectations the right way.”

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