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Mars helicopter can’t fly until it gets a software update, NASA says

NASA says its Mars Ingenuity helicopter requires a software update before it can attempt its first flight on the red planet.

There’s a lot riding on Ingenuity as it seeks to become the first-ever aircraft to perform powered flight on another planet. The diminutive machine, which arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021, was supposed to make its first flight on Sunday, April 11, but an issue that emerged during a high-speed spin test of the aircraft’s rotors prompted NASA to postpone the effort.

At the time, it was expected that the next flight attempt could take place on Wednesday, April 14, but NASA has now learned that it needs to install a new software update on Ingenuity. The time-consuming process means that NASA will be unable to schedule the flight until next week.

In a tweet, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Mars mission, described Ingenuity as “healthy” and confirmed there are no serious underlying issues affecting the 4-pound (1.8-kg) helicopter.

#MarsHelicopter update: Ingenuity is healthy, but it needs a flight software update. While the development of the software is straightforward, validating and uplinking it will take time. We will set a new flight date next week.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 13, 2021

NASA said several days ago that the issue emerged as the aircraft was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘”pre-flight” to “flight” mode.

“Over the weekend, the team considered and tested multiple potential solutions to this issue, concluding that minor modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software is the most robust path forward,” the space agency said on Monday, April 12. “This software update will modify the process by which the two flight controllers boot up, allowing the hardware and software to safely transition to the flight state. Modifications to the flight software are being independently reviewed and validated today and tomorrow in testbeds at JPL.”

It added that although the development of the new software is straightforward, “the process of validating it and completing its uplink to Ingenuity will take some time.” A new flight schedule will be announced next week, suggesting the helicopter could attempt its first flight the week after that.

NASA is planning to send Ingenuity on a total of five flights of increasing complexity. Its maiden flight will be a gentle hover test several meters off the ground to check that everything is in proper working order. Later flights, on the other hand, could see Ingenuity travel distances of up to 300 meters.

NASA is keen to prove that Ingenuity’s technology can handle Mars’ superthin atmosphere and extremely cold temperatures. The flights should pave the way for more advanced Mars helicopters capable of flying close to the Martian surface to uncover interesting research sites and also to collect data for mapping routes for future rovers sent to Mars.

“Aptly named, Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that aims to be the first powered flight on another world and, if successful, could further expand our horizons and broaden the scope of what is possible with Mars exploration,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters.

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Trevor Mogg
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