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NASA’s Mars helicopter flies again and gets a new mission

NASA’s small Martian helicopter, Ingenuity, will be able to fly a little more.

Small flying robots made history as the first powered aircraft to take off in another world a week and a half ago. On Friday, its fourth flight went farther and faster than ever.

That wasn’t the only good news NASA had about helicopters on Friday.

At a press conference earlier that day, the space agency announced that it would extend Ingenuity’s lifespan to another 30 Mars day and take the mission to a new stage. Ingenuity engineers have demonstrated that they can fly in the thin skies of Mars, so they explore how it can be used as an aerial reconnaissance aircraft for the larger robot companion, the Parsavier Lans Rover. I will.

“It looks like Ingenuity has graduated from the tech demo stage,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said at a press conference on Friday.

Previously, the service life of a helicopter seemed to be nearing its end soon. The 30 days on Mars that had been assigned to Ingenuity’s test flight were exhausted next week, and the plan was to abandon it and never fly again.

Ingenuity (only 1.6 feet high and weighing 4 pounds) is a $ 85 million add-on to NASA’s latest $ 2.7 billion rover, Persavierance, which landed on Mars in February. Helicopters are the first airplanes to fly in another world, like airplanes and helicopters.

The extension of Ingenuity’s flight is not only the success of the helicopter, but planetary scientists exploring the current environment near where they landed in February, rather than driving immediately towards the ancient dry delta. It reflects the desire for perseverance to do. Look for signs of past Martian life.

On the fourth flight, Ingenuity used the camera to look for a new base for future flights. The fifth flight will take a one-way trip to a new spot. From there, there will probably be one or two more flights in May.

Aung said the helicopter would perform reconnaissance to help plan where Perseverance would drive, take pictures of areas that were too steep for the rover to drive, and map the elevations of the Martian landscape. He said he can create stereo images.

“The lessons learned from that exercise will bring tremendous benefits to future missions using the aerial platform,” she said.

On Friday, Ingenuity lifted in the middle of Mars Day — on Earth at 10:49 EST. After reaching an altitude of 16 feet, he traveled 436 feet south, flying over rocks, sand ripples, and small craters. After hovering and taking pictures with a color camera, we returned to the starting point that NASA named the Wright Brothers Field.

The flight covered more than twice the distance of the previous trip five days ago. This time, Ingenuity also flew for a longer period of time (117 seconds compared to 80 seconds on the third flight), reaching a top speed of 8 miles per hour.

Success followed a flight attempt that was canceled on Thursday. The cause was a recurrence of the problem that occurred earlier this month.

During a test to rotate the helicopter rotor at full speed without taking off on April 9, the startup took longer than expected and the Ingenuity computer shut down the motor instead of entering “flying mode”.

During the week of troubleshooting, engineers came up with a software fix, but just like upgrading a computer’s operating system, new software bugs can cause even greater problems, so Ingenuity. I decided not to install it on. The software may crash.

If your computer is on another planet 187 million miles away, your stakes will be even higher.

Instead, the engineer chose a simpler fix. Leave the Ingenuity software as it is and adjust the commands sent from Earth to Mars. This solved the problem significantly, but it was not a complete solution. Testing on Earth has shown that there is a 15% chance of timing errors.

However, engineers also knew that if the error recurred, it was likely that the second attempt would be successful simply by retrying the next day. That’s exactly what happened on Friday.

After Ingenuity continues to operate and proves useful, NASA can continue to extend its lifespan.

Ingenuity chief engineers Aung and Bob Bararam said the helicopter was designed to last only 30 days on Mars and it is unknown how long it will be in operation. However, Dr. Baralam also said that Ingenuity’s lifespan is not inherently limited. Helicopters charge their batteries through solar panels, so you won’t run out of fuel, for example.

The top speed of 8 miles per hour may not seem particularly fast, but robot helicopters need to fly over alien landscapes without the help of engineers on Earth. Use the downward camera to map the landscape below. If you fly too fast, you won’t know where you are and you may crash.

However, Ingenuity has flown over 16 feet in the last three flights, even though the two 4-foot-wide counter-rotating blades generate enough lift to rise above the ground. not. This is primarily an altimeter limitation. An altimeter measures height by reflecting a laser on the ground and recording the time it takes for the reflected light to return to the sensor.

Dr. Balaram said the 16-foot altitude is a “sweet spot” that provides excellent resolution for images used for navigation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I was asked to go to a higher vantage point in a particular place,” said Dr. Baralam. The helicopter was able to climb up to 32 feet without causing problems with the altimeter and “provide panoramic images that could be useful to rover operators and scientists.”

NASA’s Mars helicopter flies again and gets a new mission

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