WASHINGTON – With four planes completed, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter will change from a state-of-the-art technology to a test of its Perseverance rover.
Intelligence made its fourth flight on April 30, staying on top for 117 seconds. The helicopter flew at a height of 5 meters, then descended 133 meters back and forth before returning. The airline keeps track of the length of time in the air and the distance traveled.
The flight was scheduled for April 29, but telemetry returned later that day indicating that the helicopter had never taken off. The project’s engineers believe that a timer problem, similar to the one found during a pre-flight test in early April, would have kept the helicopter afloat. They have improved the timing of the timer glitch without updating the helicopter software, a method they previously said should work 85% of the time.
“There is an insect, and this is to take advantage of this insect,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer of Ingenuity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a press conference on April 30 about a helicopter just before the details confirming a successful flight landed on Earth. “It has worked well three times and yesterday it didn’t work well.”
The fourth successful aircraft now allows intelligence to enter a new phase of its mission. NASA originally planned to operate five spacecraft on a mission that lasted 30 sols, or Martian days, after which the project would end, no matter what the helicopter situation was. That would allow the Perseverance rover, which supports helicopters, to advance to its ultimate scientific goal.
However, at a JPL forum, agency officials said the intelligence would continue to operate over the first month. “After exploring Perseverance’s scientific strategy, there is room for increased intelligence in the new phase,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science program. “The ingenuity will shift from technological demonstrations, where helicopter aviation skills are proven, to job fairs.”
In that new demonstration, intelligence will support Patience as it begins its scientific work. “We will now focus on the use of an online platform, and work on operational products,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity. That could include aerial view of the rover’s scientific target and the test methods to be taken by the rover.
That effort will begin with the next helicopter flight, expected at about a week. The project team will use images taken from the fourth aircraft to identify the new “airport”, or residence, of Ingenuity. The helicopter will be flying from one point to the new, which will form the basis for the next phase of operation.
Extended missions were made possible due to the excellent workmanship. “The technical performance has been excellent, and it has exceeded all expectations,” Balaram said. “We thought there would be some problems.” He said the only issue was the timing.
He pointed out that the solar-powered helicopter did not have enough food to reduce its life span. The biggest problem is the hot pressure from the round-the-clock cycle on Mars that affects non-shelf commercial components used in a helicopter. “It is expected that, sometimes with a sufficient hot bike, something – a member or something – will break down,” he said.
Another major feature that has allowed expanded missions is the modification of the Persistence programs themselves. “At first, we thought we would be moving from place to place,” said Jennifer Trosper, Project Manager for Perseverance rover. Instead, scientists want to stay in the area for months, including collecting the first samples of a rover that they will store in order to return to Earth.
Intelligent performance will be limited, however, during these performance demonstrations to reduce the effect you have on endurance. With intelligence going every three to four days, these machines now expect to make only one or two planes next month, when a helicopter flies to its new airport. Persistence also will not take pictures of a helicopter plane as happened in previous aircraft.
“We hope we can use intelligence in a way that will not interfere with the work of science, in such a way that, as long as it is available and still alive, that we will be able to move forward,” Trosper said.
That performance demo is designed to last 30 sols, but NASA is open to run it as long as the helicopter stays in good condition and helps with Perseverance. “We’ll look at performance, we’ll see what kind of data products we can get, and see how both aviation systems work together,” Glaze said. “After that 30 sol season, we’ll check where we are.” Glaze added that extended shipping will cost “very little” given the reduced operating speed.
“We really expect a finite life” in Ingenuity, Aung said, “so it will be a race between how long these parts will surprise us to survive and, by making these conditions work, we will naturally be pushing the limits of intelligence.”