Technology

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Flies Again and Gets a New Mission

Ingenuity, NASA’s little Mars helicopter that would, will get to fly some extra.

The small flying robotic made historical past a week and a half in the past as the primary powered plane to take off on one other world. On Friday, its fourth flight went farther and quicker than ever earlier than.

That wasn’t the one excellent news NASA had in regards to the helicopter on Friday.

In a information convention earlier within the day, the house company introduced that it was extending Ingenuity’s life by one other 30 Martian days, bringing the mission into a new part. Now that Ingenuity’s engineers have demonstrated that flying within the skinny air of Mars is feasible, they’ll discover how it may be used as an aerial scout for its bigger robotic companion, the Perseverance rover.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase,” MiMi Aung, the project supervisor of Ingenuity, stated throughout a information convention on Friday.

Previously, it had appeared as if the helicopter’s service life was rapidly drawing to a shut. The 30 Martian days that had been allotted for take a look at flights of Ingenuity have been to expire subsequent week, and the plans have been to then abandon it, by no means to fly once more.

Ingenuity — simply 1.6 ft tall, 4 kilos in weight — is an $85 million add-on to Perseverance, NASA’s newest $2.7 billion rover, which landed on Mars in February. The helicopter is the primary to fly like an airplane or a helicopter on one other world.

The extension of Ingenuity’s flights displays not solely the success of the helicopter but in addition the need of planetary scientists for Perseverance to discover its present environment, near the place it landed in February, as a substitute of instantly driving towards an historic, dried-up river delta to search for indicators of previous Martian life.

On the fourth flight, Ingenuity used its digital camera to seek for a new base for future flights. On its fifth flight, it can make a one-way journey to the brand new spot. From there, it can conduct maybe one or two extra flights in May.

Ms. Aung stated the helicopter may carry out reconnaissance to assist plan the place Perseverance will drive, take footage of areas too rugged for the rover to drive to and produce stereo photographs to map the elevations of the Martian panorama.

“The lessons learned from that exercise will benefit future missions with the aerial platforms tremendously,” she stated.

On Friday, Ingenuity lifted off through the center of the Martian day — on Earth, it was 10:49 a.m. Eastern time. After reaching an altitude of 16 ft, it headed south for 436 ft, flying over rocks, sand ripples and small craters. It hovered, took footage with its coloration digital camera and then flew again to its start line, which NASA has named Wright Brothers Field.

The flight coated greater than twice the gap of the earlier journey 5 days earlier. This time Ingenuity additionally flew for a longer interval — 117 seconds in contrast with 80 seconds on the third flight — and quicker, reaching a high pace of 8 miles per hour.

The success adopted an aborted flight try on Thursday. The trigger was a recurrence of a downside encountered earlier this month.

During a take a look at on April 9 to spin the helicopter’s rotors to full pace with out taking off, the start-up actions took longer than anticipated, and Ingenuity’s computer systems as a substitute shut the motors down as a substitute of coming into “flight mode.”

During a week of troubleshooting, engineers got here up with a software repair however determined to not set up it on Ingenuity due to the small however attainable probability that a bug within the new software may trigger even greater issues, simply as upgrading the working system of your computer could cause the software to crash.

The stakes are even greater when the computer is on one other planet 187 million miles away.

The engineers as a substitute opted for a less complicated repair: leaving the software on Ingenuity untouched however adjusting the instructions despatched from Earth to Mars. That largely eradicated the difficulty, but it surely was not a excellent answer. Testing on Earth confirmed that timing error nonetheless occurred 15 % of the time.

But the engineers additionally knew that if the error recurred, they might simply attempt once more the next day, and the second try would most certainly succeed. That is precisely what occurred on Friday.

After Ingenuity continues to function and show helpful, NASA may proceed to increase its life.

Ms. Aung and Bob Balaram, the chief engineer of Ingenuity, stated that the helicopter was designed to final solely 30 Martian days and that they might not say how lengthy it could stay in working situation. But Dr. Balaram additionally stated the lifetime of Ingenuity was not intrinsically restricted. The helicopter recharges its batteries by photo voltaic panels, so it won’t run out of gas, for example.

A high pace of 8 miles per hour could not appear notably quick, however the robotic helicopter has to fly over an alien panorama with no assist from the engineers on Earth. It makes use of a down-looking digital camera to map the panorama under, and if it flew too quick, it may lose monitor of the place it was and maybe crash.

However, Ingenuity has not flown any greater than the 16 ft of the final three flights, regardless that its two four-foot-wide counter-rotating blades generate sufficient raise to go greater off the bottom. That’s largely a limitation of its altimeter, which measures the peak by bouncing a laser off the bottom and noting the time for the mirrored mild to return to the sensor.

Dr. Balaram stated the 16-foot altitude was a “sweet spot” that gives good decision for the photographs used for navigation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if at some particular location we are asked to go to a higher vantage point,” Dr. Balaram stated. The helicopter may go as much as 32 ft or so with out inflicting issues for the altimeter and “provide some panoramic-type imagery that might be useful to the rover operators or the scientists.”

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