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Mars helicopter’s rotors fail to spin for ambitious fourth flight

Ingenuity stayed stuck on the Martian surface on Thursday when it was supposed to be flying high.

A software issue prevented NASA’s helicopter from lifting off for what would have been the aircraft’s fourth and most ambitious flight to date.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing Ingenuity’s Mars mission, described the helicopter as “safe and healthy,” adding that it will try again on Friday, April 30.

Ingenuity made history on April 19 when it became the first aircraft to perform powered, controlled flight on another planet. Since then, the 4-pound, 19-inch-high drone-like vehicle has taken two other flights of increasing complexity.

Software issue

Thursday’s flight effort failed due to a software issue that first emerged during a test of Ingenuity’s rotors prior to its maiden flight, when the aircraft was unable to transition from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode. JPL engineers beamed an update to Ingenuity’s software in a matter of days but said the fix would have a 15% failure rate that would prevent the aircraft from entering flight mode.

The team said it will attempt the fourth flight again at 10:46 a.m. ET (7:46 a.m. PT) on Friday, with the first data from Ingenuity expected to arrive at JPL’s base in California at 1:39 p.m. ET (10:39 a.m. PT).

Space fans are eager to learn if Ingenuity can ace its fourth and most complex flight to date in Mars’ superthin atmosphere.

While the helicopter’s first airborne effort involved only a hover, its second and third outings saw it zip across the Martian surface. The next flight, however, will see Ingenuity fly faster and further than ever before. JPL said it plans for the helicopter to climb to an altitude of 5 meters before embarking on a flight lasting 117 seconds, 37 seconds longer than its previous effort.

The autonomous aircraft will also increase its airspeed from 2 meters per second on its last flight to 3.5 meters per second (4.5 mph to 8 mph) while zipping 133 meters across the Martian surface, flying 83 meters further than it did during its third flight. During part of its trip, Ingenuity will use also its downward-facing camera to snap pictures of the terrain below.

Future Mars helicopters are certain to be deployed for gathering imagery of rocky terrain that’s too challenging for a wheel-equipped rover to tackle, so the team at JPL are eager to put Ingenuity through its paces in an effort to get as much useful data as possible.

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Trevor Mogg
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