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NASA’s Mars helicopter forced to cut short latest flight

NASA’s Mars helicopter has now completed an impressive 71 flights on the red planet since its first hover there in April 2021.

While most of the flights have taken place without any difficulties, the latest one was cut short after Ingenuity’s navigation system found it difficult to cope with the “relatively featureless terrain,” which consisted of “sand ripples with few or no rocks,” according to a social media post by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the mission.

Ingenuity completed Flight 71!

The #MarsHelicopter landed successfully, but earlier than expected. The relatively featureless terrain it flew over (sand ripples with few or no rocks) proved to be a challenge for its navigation system. See the stats:

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) January 10, 2024

During Saturday’s flight, Ingenuity had been expected to travel a distance of just over 1,175 feet (358 meters), but in the event, it only flew 233 feet (71 meters) — about a third of the planned route — before touching down.

This meant that the flight, which did achieve the expected altitude of 39.4 feet (12 meters) and speed of 15.7 mph (7 meters per second), only lasted 35 seconds instead of the expected 125 seconds.

Ingenuity’s downward-facing camera uses the terrain to help it make its way to the designated landing spot, but it appears to have become confused by the lack of landmarks along the route. It’s a good lesson for the JPL team, which will likely now be engaged in improving the onboard navigation system to deal with featureless terrain more effectively.

The good news is that Ingenuity appears to have stayed close to its planned flight path and that it landed safely.

It’s not the first challenge that the helicopter has had to overcome. A software issue prior to its fourth flight in 2021, for example, prevented its rotors from spinning, leaving it grounded until a fix was transmitted to the aircraft from the team on Earth.

According to JPL’s data, the helicopter, which is the only aircraft to have performed powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth, has now traveled a total distance of 11 miles (nearly 18 km) and stayed in the air for a total of 128.3 minutes. Ingenuity’s record flight speed to date is 22.4 mph (10 meters per second), and its record altitude is 78.8 feet (24 meters).

The helicopter arrived on Mars as a technology demonstration, but its flights have been so successful that it ended up assisting NASA’s Perseverance rover by capturing imagery of the terrain to help mission planners select the best routes for the wheel-based rover as it explores Mars’ Jezero Crater for signs of ancient microbial life.

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