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How NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter shook off Martian dust to fly again

In January, a major dust storm on Mars prompted NASA to postpone the 19th flight of its Ingenuity helicopter.

When the dust settled, the team overseeing the mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California discovered a good deal of it had ended up on Ingenuity.

Analysis of the helicopter revealed a couple of issues that needed to be overcome before the 19-inch-high, 4-pound flying machine could once again take to the Martian skies.

The first was dust around the edges of Ingenuity’s ground-facing navigation camera window.

“Debris on the navigation camera window is problematic because Ingenuity’s visual navigation software may confuse the debris with the actual ground features that it tries to track during flight, which can cause navigation errors,” JPL said in an article on its website.

Fortunately, the team was able to overcome the issue by updating Ingenuity’s software with a new image mask file that instructed the helicopter’s visual navigation software to ignore certain regions of the image, thereby preventing the aircraft from making any dangerous maneuvers during flight.

The other issue the team had to deal with was dust on Ingenuity’s swashplate assemblies, a vital part of the flying machine that controls the pitch of the rotor blades to ensure stable flight.

The problem came to light when the team performed its first swashplate actuator self-test following the January 28 dust storm.

“Data revealed that all six swashplate servo actuators were experiencing unusual levels of resistance while moving the swashplates over their range of motion,” JPL said. “The team determined that the likeliest explanation for the increased resistance was that dust and sand had accumulated on the swashplate assemblies, which have exposed moving parts.”

The good news is that engineers had considered this potential problem when designing Ingenuity. The solution was to instruct Ingenuity to carry out a number of so-called “servo wiggles,” a self-cleaning process designed to remove dust.

“Remarkably, by the end of that activity, Ingenuity’s servo loads appeared nearly identical to nominal loads seen prior to the dust storm,” JPL said.

Overcoming the two issues paved the way for Ingenuity’s 19th flight earlier this month, which went like a dream.

“All in all, Flight 19 was fraught with challenges, but Ingenuity demonstrated its resilience once again, shaking off the dust and getting itself out of the South Séítah basin,” JPL said.

The team confirmed this week that Ingenuity is now ready for its 20th mission, which will take the helicopter back to the current position of NASA’s Perseverance rover. From there, the two robotic partners will begin making their to the Jezero Crater river delta, where Perseverance will continue its search for ancient microbial life while at the same time collecting rock samples for return to Earth in a future mission.

Ingenuity made history in April 2021 when it became the first aircraft to make powered, controlled flight on another planet, overcoming the challenge of getting airborne in Mars’ superthin atmosphere.

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