NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter returns to flight after unplanned landing

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Ingenuity Helicopter.

Photo by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter taken by the Perseverance rover on August 2. | Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

of NASA The Mars Smart helicopter has completed its first flight since an unplanned landing during its July 22 flight. The most recent flight, Ingenuity’s 54th flight on the planet, had a 25-second up-and-down hop to give the Ingenuity team some insight into why the helicopter’s 53rd flight had aborted.

Flight 53, brilliantly meant to end abruptly, was planned as a 136-second scout flight to collect images of the Martian surface for the Perseverance rover science team. The plane will be 666 feet (203 meters) north at an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) at 5.6 mph (2.5 meters per second), where it will image a sheet of rock.

After that, Ingenuity must go up 33 feet (10 meters) to allow its hazard diversion system to launch. It descends vertically to touch down.

In fact, Ingenuity was only able to fly north about 466 feet before its flight contingency program was triggered and the helicopter automatically landed after a total of 74 seconds.

„Since the first flight, we’ve included a program called 'LAND_NOW,’ which is designed to quickly put the helicopter on the surface if it encounters any of a few dozen nominal scenarios,” said team leader Teddy Zanetos. Award for Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. „During Flight 53, we encountered one of these and the helicopter performed as planned and landed immediately.”

The Ingenuity team believes this early landing was triggered by frames from the helicopter’s navigation camera not properly synchronizing with data from Ingenuity’s inertial measurement unit, which measures its acceleration and rotation rates.

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Data from the inertial measurement unit allows NASA to estimate where the helicopter is, how fast it is moving and how it is performing in space.

A similar problem occurred early in Ingenuity’s life at Mars on May 22, 2021, on the 6th flight. The Intelligence experienced excessive pitching and rolling during flight as several image frames were dropped.

After the incident, the Ingenuity team updated the helicopter’s flight software, which worked until Flight 53, to help mitigate the impact of the fallen films. During that flight, the number of dropped navigation images exceeded what the previous software patch allowed.

„While we hope to never trigger a LAND_NOW, this flight is a valuable study that will benefit future flights to other worlds,” Tzanetos said. „The team is working to better understand what happened on Flight 53, and we believe that with the success of Flight 54, our baby is ready to advance to Mars.”

Intelligence touches Mars in April 2021. This helicopter was the first to be sent to another planet. It was sent as a technical specification for testing the first manned spacecraft on Mars. Although the helicopter has been flying strong for more than two years now, NASA’s team doesn’t expect it to last forever.

NASA was so excited by Ingenuity’s success that it decided to replace its prototype fetch rovers with two helicopter-like drones to serve as backups to the Perseverance rover on a Mars prototype return campaign.

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