NASA’s helicopter has already done 28 flights to Mars and now its future is uncertain

NASA TV

If it flew, the little helicopter would fly in the sky Mars planet 5 times – maximum – in a period of 31 days.

But in the past year, the brave little helicopter known as the Ingenuity has soared into the skies of Mars 28 times, exceeding expectations and giving scientists a new vantage point on the Red Planet. Over the past 13 months, the helicopter has been in the air for almost an hour, traveling about 7 km, with a top speed of 20 kmph and reaching a maximum altitude of 12 metres.

He traversed potholes, photographed areas that would be difficult to reach from land, and acted as an amazingly resilient scout, adapting to the changing Martian climate and from cold nights and harsh dust storms. saved.

But now engineers and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory NASA Concerned: Their solar-powered drone may be nearing the end of its life.

Winter is starting on Mars. Dust is rising, covering Ingenuity’s solar panels and preventing it from fully charging its six lithium-ion batteries. This month, for the first time since landing on Mars more than a year ago, Ingenuity strongly missed a scheduled communications session, the Martian rover it relies on to send data and receive commands from Earth.

Will the dust-covered ingenuity survive the Martian winter, where temperatures drop below -73 °C? And if it doesn’t, how is the world supposed to remember that tiny helicopter that cost $80 million to develop and over five years to design and build? Those closest to the project say that now that its journey is drawing to a close, it is difficult to overstate its achievements.

“The helicopter far exceeded initial expectations,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. Washington Post,

Given the rarity of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists and engineers who worked on Ingenuity weren’t sure the experiment would be successful. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the time that it was an initiative that forced NASA to find “the right line between madness and innovation.”

Therefore, with the success of the first flight on April 19, 2021, NASA declared it as a moment worthy of the Wright brothers. As a tribute, Ingenuity had a piece of cloth from the brothers’ plane, known as a flyer, attached to a cable beneath the solar panel.

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The star of NASA’s latest Martian mission, Perseverance flew effortlessly to Mars while strapped to the rover’s belly. After traveling nearly 480 million kilometers over seven months, Perseverance made a dramatic landing in February 2021 under a parachute that contained a secret code that read: “Dare to do great things.”

The SUV-sized rover landed in an area of ​​Mars known as Jezero Crater, which once held water and may provide clues about the planet’s history and whether it ever harbored life. The rover is collecting rock and soil samples that NASA hopes will be sent on future missions to Earth, as well as using seven of its instruments to conduct science experiments and test new technologies.

Simplicity was an add-on, a technological experiment that could be useful for future missions and allow space agency scientists to explore the landscape of Mars farther than they could from Earth.

But flying autonomous drones on Mars would be extremely difficult. The atmosphere is only 1% of the density of the Earth’s atmosphere. So, to generate lift, the helicopter’s five-foot-wide blades would have to spin incredibly fast: 2,500 revolutions per minute.

“We built this as an experiment,” Glaze said. “So they don’t necessarily have the qualified parts that we use on bigger missions like Perseverance.” Some of these parts, such as smartphone parts, were also repaired, so “there was a possibility that they would not function as we expected. And there was a risk that nothing would work well.”

But as the ingenuity kept flying, ground controllers began to realize that their small project could achieve big things. Before his fifth flight, he wrote a blog post: “Our helicopter is stronger than we expected. The electrical system we’ve been worried about for years keeps us flying during the day and our heaters running at night.” Providing more than enough power. The floating components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing very well, as is our rotor system. It’s all going great.”

As Simplicity continued to function, NASA scientists became more intrigued by the idea that the helicopter could play an important role in the mission.

“What happened, after Ingenuity did so well on those first five flights, the Persistence science team came to us and said, ‘You know, we want this helicopter to continue operating to help us with our explorations. And achieve our scientific goals,'” Glaze said.

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So NASA decided to continue the flights. On its sixth flight, Ingenuity ran into problems. The helicopter navigates with a camera that takes 30 photos per second of the area below, each with a time stamp. An algorithm predicts what the camera should have seen at that particular moment based on images taken in earlier moments. The algorithm then calculates the difference between the predicted position and the actual position of the ground to correct for their position, speed and altitude.

But the timing was off on this flight. As a result, Ingenuity was being driven by a drunk driver, “adjusting its speed and swinging back and forth in an oscillating pattern,” NASA said in the blog.

Nevertheless, it managed to land safely within 5 meters of its target because of “considerable effort that went into ensuring that the helicopter’s flight control system had a sufficient ‘margin of stability’,” NASA wrote. In other words: “In the truest sense, there is increased spontaneity in the face of challenge.”

Flight 9, in July, was also “nail-biting,” as NASA wrote. Not just because Ingenuity broke records for flight duration and cruising speed, but because it flew over a crater, “an area called SITA that would be difficult to traverse with a land vehicle like the Persistence rover,” says NASA wrote on the blog.

Because the Ingenuity was conceived as a technological experiment, engineers designed it to fly over flat terrain, easy to navigate with your on-board camera. For this flight, however, ingenuity will have to dive into the crater. For this he had to slow down and engineers had to modify the navigation algorithm. The flight was a success, and Ingenuity was able to send color photos of the area, even a location that some think “could record some of the deepest aquatic environments of ancient Lake Jezero,” NASA said. wrote. “Given the mission’s tight schedule, it is possible that they will not be able to visit these rocks with the rover, so Ingenuity may provide the only opportunity to study these deposits in detail.”

Since then, Ingenuity has progressed, overcoming one obstacle after another. At one point in September, it detected an engine problem during a pre-flight check “and did exactly what it should have done: canceled the flight”.

After about a month, the problem was fixed and it started working again.

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In April, Ingenuity made another discovery: Flying over the parachute that slowed the rover to land on Mars, it spotted the ruins of the structure that carried the rover as it dives toward the Martian surface. was protected. A pair of man-made objects left on another planet, the images “simply blew my mind,” Glaze said. In the past, NASA was able to locate vehicles on the surface of Mars using spacecraft in distant orbit. But here they were so close, in such high definition that you could see the words “Dare to Do Great Things” encoded through a thin layer of red dust.

Then, ten days later, on 29 April, he rode his last flight to date, flight number 28, 400 meters, which lasted two and a half minutes. Now NASA wonders if it will be the last.

The space agency believes that their inability to fully charge the batteries caused them to enter a state of low power. When it became idling, the helicopter’s on-board clock was reset in the same way that home clocks are reset after a power outage. So the next day, when the sun rose and began charging the batteries, the helicopter was out of sync with the rover: “Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to make solid contact, the rover’s base station listened. Wasn’t,” NASA wrote.

Then NASA did something extraordinary: Mission controllers firmly ordered that May 5 spend most of the time listening to signals from helicopters.

Finally, Little Ingenuity called home. The radio link, NASA said, was “stable”, the helicopter was healthy and the battery was charging 41%.

But, as NASA warned, “one session of radio communication doesn’t mean the ingenuity is out of danger. An increase in dust in the air (which reduces brightness) means the battery needs to be degraded to that level.” Charging that allows critical components (such as the clock and heater) to retain power throughout the night will be a significant challenge.”

Maybe the ingenuity will fly away again. Maybe not. “At this point, I can’t say what’s going to happen next,” Glaze said. “We are still trying to find a way to resume flights. But persistence is the main mission, so we need to start setting our expectations properly.” / TRANSLATION BY RENATO PRELORENTZOU

About the author: Raven Weber

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