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How NASA engineers are fixing the issue grounding Mars helicopter Ingenuity

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter using its Left Mastcam-Z camera, on Apr. 16, 2021 (Sol 55).
NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter using its Left Mastcam-Z camera, on Apr. 16, 2021 (Sol 55). NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The tiny Mars helicopter Ingenuity has captured the imagination of the public and is set to soon become the first aircraft to fly on another planet. It had been set to take its first test flight last week, but this had to be delayed when an issue was noticed during a high-speed spin test of its rotors. Now, NASA has shared more details on how the helicopter is doing and what the plan is for fixing the problem.

In an update on both the rover and the helicopter, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory described how they have been working on fixing the issue with Ingenuity which is preventing the craft from going into flight mode. Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity, said that the team was working on both a long-term fix for the issue and also some short-term workarounds which were sent to the craft this week.

Having performed another spin test, the engineers received new data on Friday which they will now analyze to see if the issue is still occurring. If the issue is fixed, the first test flight of Ingenuity should be able to go ahead soon.

NASA also gave more details about its approach to the issue in a blog post: “As with any engineering challenge, there are multiple approaches that are considered. In this case, the team has been working on two potential solutions in parallel. The approach that led to today’s successful spin test entailed adding a few commands to the flight sequence. This approach was tested extensively on both Earth and Mars and was performed without jeopardizing the safety of the helicopter.

“A second approach requires minor modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software. The software swap is a straightforward fix to a known issue. But, it will take a bit longer to perform and is a modification to software that has remained stable and unchanged for close to two years. Validation and testing have taken several days, and transfer and loading of these new files will take several more.”

NASA personnel are now reviewing information about both potential solutions to decide which to prioritize before the first test flight. The agency has stated that it hopes to announce a date for the test flight this weekend, so we’ll keep you updated on the latest about when the helicopter is scheduled to take off from the martian surface for the first time.

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