Mars helicopter is back in action and will attempt high rotor speed flight today

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity will be attempting another test flight this weekend, spinning its rotors faster than in any flight before to compensate for the changing weather on Mars.

In a tweet posted on Friday, October 22, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) confirmed that they were planning to resume Ingenuity test flights as soon as today, Saturday October 23. The engineers will be trying out a short flight using a higher rotor speed for flight number 14.

🚁 Now that conjunction is over, #MarsHelicopter can attempt flight 14. Ingenuity successfully performed a 50 rpm spin test this week & will do a short hop no earlier than Oct. 23. This is to test out flying in lower atmospheric densities on the Red Planet

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) October 22, 2021

Ingenuity needs to spin its rotors faster than it has done previously due to changes in the Martian weather. The original plan for the helicopter was to perform just five flights, but it has been such a success that the team has continued with further and more complex flights. But that means they must now contend with changing Martian seasons.

The atmosphere on Mars is already very thin, at around 1% of the density of the atmosphere on Earth, but seasonal changes mean that it is now getting even thinner. The thinning of the atmosphere is a problem for Ingenuity, which flies by spinning its rotors to move the air and keep itself aloft.

To deal with this thinning atmosphere, the JPL team plans to spin Ingenuity’s rotors even faster to generate more lift during the flight. However, this involves spinning up the rotors to speeds never attempted during testing on Earth. Spinning them too fast could lead to problems by creating too much drag or by creating resonances that shake the helicopter.

To make sure it was safe to spin the rotors at speeds of up to 2,800 rpm, the team performed a high-speed spin test last month. Everything went well, and JPL reported that the systems performed “flawlessly.”

The plan had been to go ahead with test flight 14 using rotor speeds of up to 2,700 rpm, but this was delayed due to the detection of a minor anomaly. Then there was a further delay due to the Mars solar conjunction, when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun which makes sending radio signals difficult. Ingenuity, like NASA’s other Mars explorers, took a two-week break over this period while engineers waited for communications to be safely resumed.

Now that wait is over, and Ingenuity can get back to its ambitious, high-rotor-speed test flight 14. The flight will be just a short hop to ensure that flight still works, even with the lower atmospheric densities.

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