NASA’s Mars Helicopter is supposed to fly five times. Flying on the 28th

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If it flies, it’s very big ifthe small helicopter will fly to Mars five times (maximum) in 31 days.

But the intrepid little helicopter called Ingenuity has lifted off 28 times in the past year, far exceeding expectations, giving scientists a new vantage point on the red planet. In total, it has flown nearly 4.3 miles aloft for nearly an hour over the past 13 months, with a top speed of 12.3 mph and a top altitude of 39 feet.

It traversed craters, took pictures of hard-to-reach areas on the ground, and served as a surprisingly resilient scout, adapting to the changing Martian atmosphere and surviving harsh dust storms and cold nights.

Now, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are concerned that their 4-pound solar-powered drone on Mars may be about to die.

Winter has begun on Mars. Dust covered Ingenuity’s solar panels and prevented it from fully charging its six lithium-ion batteries. This month, Ingenuity missed a planned communications meeting with Perseverance, the Mars rover it relies on to send data and receive commands from Earth, for the first time since landing on Mars more than a year ago.

What’s new in Mars rover Percy?

Can dusty Ingenuity survive Martian winters, when temperatures often drop below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit? If not, how is the world supposed to remember this small helicopter that cost $80 million to develop and over five years to design and build? Those closest to the project say Ingenuity’s achievements over time cannot be overstated.

“This helicopter has far exceeded initial expectations,” Lori Glaz, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told The Washington Post.

Given the thin atmosphere on Mars, the scientists and engineers working on the Ingenuity project were simply not sure the experiment would be successful. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the time that it was an effort to force NASA to find “the right line between madness and innovation.”

So when the first flight on April 19, 2021, is a success, NASA is calling it a Wright Brothers moment. As a tribute, Ingenuity attached a postage-sized piece of fabric (called a Flyer) from its brothers’ plane to a cable beneath the solar panels.

Ingenuity flies to Mars, tethered to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover, the star of NASA’s most recent mission to Mars. After flying some 300 million miles over seven months, Perseverance made a dramatic landing in February 2021 under a parachute that contained a code that read “Dare to do great things.”

The SUV-sized rover touched down on an area on Mars known as Jezero Crater, which once contained water and could shed light on Earth’s history and whether life existed there. The rover is collecting rock and soil samples that NASA hopes to return to Earth on future missions, and using its seven instruments to conduct scientific experiments and test new technologies.

The ingenuity is an add-on, a demonstration of technology that could prove useful for future missions and allow space agency scientists to explore more of the Martian landscape than land alone.

But flying unmanned drones on Mars will be very difficult. The atmosphere there is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, so to generate lift, the helicopter’s 4-foot-wide blades must spin at an incredible speed — 2,500 revolutions per minute.

“We built it as an experiment,” Glaze said. “So it doesn’t necessarily have the flight-qualified parts that we use on larger missions like Perseverance.” Some, such as components for smartphones, are even off-the-shelf, so “they may not perform in the environment we expect. So , it runs the risk of not working.”

As the Ingenuity continued to fly, ground controllers began to realize that their little projects could accomplish big things. Ahead of their fifth flight, they wrote in a blog post: “Our helicopter is more powerful than we had hoped. The electrical system we’ve been tormented with for years provides enough energy to keep our heaters on Operates at night and flies during the day. The off-the-shelf components of our guidance and navigation systems also do well, as does our rotor system. You name it and it does well or better.”

As it continues to operate, NASA scientists are increasingly interested in the idea that the helicopter could become an integral part of the mission.

“What happened was, it was really critical, after Ingenuity had done so well in the first five flights, the science team from Perseverance came to us and said, ‘You know what, we want this helicopter to keep running to help us Explore and achieve our scientific goals,” Glaze said.

So NASA decided to keep flying.

On its sixth flight, Ingenuity ran into trouble. The helicopter navigates using a camera that takes 30 pictures per second, each with a time stamp. An algorithm predicts what the camera should see at a given moment based on previously captured images. The difference between the predicted position and the actual position of the ground feature is then calculated to correct for its position, velocity and altitude.

But on this flight, timestamps are off. As a result, Ingenuity looks like it was being driven by a drunk driver, “adjusting its speed and leaning back and forth in a wobbly fashion,” NASA said in a blog post.

Still, it was able to land safely within 16 feet of the target because “considerable effort was put into ensuring that the helicopter’s flight control system had an adequate ‘stability margin,'” NASA wrote. In other words: “In a very real sense, Ingenuity is grappling with the situation.”

The July 9 flight was also a “nail biting,” as NASA wrote. Not only did Ingenuity break flight time and cruise speed records, but also because it flew over a crater, “an area called ‘Séítah’ that is difficult to traverse with a ground vehicle like the Perseverance rover,” NASA said in its statement. wrote in the blog.

Because the Ingenuity was designed as an experimental technology demonstration, engineers designed it to fly over mostly flat terrain, making it easier to navigate with its onboard cameras. For this flight, however, Ingenuity will have to dive into the crater. That requires it to slow down and have engineers tweak the navigation algorithms. The flight was a success, and Ingenuity was able to transmit back color photos of the area, including locations that some believe “may document some of the deepest water environments in Old Jezero Lake,” NASA wrote. “Given the time constraints on the mission, they may not be able to access these rocks with a rover, so Ingenuity may offer the only opportunity to study these deposits in detail.”

Since then, Ingenuity has persevered, overcoming hurdle after hurdle. At some point in September, it discovered an engine problem during a pre-flight inspection, “and did what it was supposed to do: it canceled the flight.”

After about a month, the problem was resolved and the flight was returned.

In April, it made another discovery—flying over the parachute that brought the rover to Mars, it uncovered the ruins of the outer shell that protected the rover as it plunged into the Martian surface. There’s an image of a pair of man-made objects, sitting on another planet, that “blew my mind,” Glaze said. In the past, NASA has been able to spot vehicles on the Martian surface via distant orbiting spacecraft. But there’s some hardware here, and up close, the clarity is so high that the “bold stuff” encoded in the chute can be seen through a thin layer of red Martian dust.

Then, 10 days later, on April 29, it made its final flight to date, the 28, a two-and-a-half-minute quarter-mile excursion. Now NASA is wondering if this will be the last.

The space agency believes that the helicopter’s inability to fully charge the battery caused the helicopter to go into a low power state. When it goes to sleep, the helicopter’s onboard clock resets, like a home clock after a power outage. So the next day, when the sun came up and started charging the batteries, the helicopter got out of sync with the rover: “Essentially, the rover’s base station wasn’t listening when Ingenuity thought it was time to contact Perseverance,” NASA wrote. .

Then NASA did something extraordinary: Mission controllers ordered Perseverance to monitor the helicopters for nearly the entirety of May 5.

Finally, Xiao Cong called home.

NASA said the radio link was “stable” and the helicopter was healthy with a battery charge rate of 41 percent.

But, as NASA warns, “One radio communication meeting doesn’t mean Ingenuity is out of the woods. Increased (light-dimming) dust in the air means charging the helicopter’s batteries to the point where vital components like clocks and heaters can be recharged. Maintaining power levels at night is a major challenge.”

Maybe Ingenuity will fly again. Maybe not.

“At this point, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next,” Glaze said. “We’re still trying to find a way to fly again. But perseverance is the number one priority, so we need to start setting our expectations appropriately.”


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