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Software fix planned for Mars helicopter

▶ Watch Video: NASA’s Mars helicopter carries a piece of Wright brothers’ plane

The long-awaited maiden flight of an experimental $80 million mini helicopter carried to Mars by the Perseverance rover is on hold while engineers test software to resolve a glitch that cropped up Friday during a pre-flight test, NASA announced Monday.

If all goes well, the team hopes to determine a new flight date next week.

Engineers initially expected to clear the Ingenuity helicopter for launch Sunday on a 30-second up-and-down flight to verify the 4-pound drone can, in fact, autonomously lift off, hover and land in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars.

But during a test Friday, as the copter’s 4-foot-long counter-rotating blades were in the process of being spun up, Ingenuity’s flight computer did not transition from one mode to another as expected. On board safety software, as programmed, shut the test down.

An artist’s impression of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

JPL announced Saturday that Ingenuity was not damaged and had downlinked a full set of telemetry as commanded. A short status update said the test flight, the first of up to five, would be delayed to at least Wednesday so engineers could review the data to determine what went wrong and what might be needed to correct it.

On Monday, JPL updated the helicopter’s status page to say the flight was on hold pending a software update.

“The Ingenuity team has identified a software solution for the command sequence issue identified on (April 9) during a planned high-speed spin-up test of the helicopter’s rotors,” the status report said.

“This software update will modify the process by which the two flight controllers boot up, allowing the hardware and software to safely transition to the flight state. Modifications to the flight software are being independently reviewed and validated.”

While the software fix is “straightforward,” the update said, “the process of validating it and completing its uplink to Ingenuity will take some time.”

If all goes well, engineers will set a new date for the helicopter’s maiden flight next week.

“We are confident in the team’s ability to work through this challenge and prepare for Ingenuity’s historic first controlled powered flight on another planet,” the update said. In the meantime, “Ingenuity continues to be healthy on the surface on Mars. Critical functions such as power, communications, and thermal control are stable.”


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Ingenuity, folded up behind a protective debris shield, was carried to Mars bolted to the belly of the $2.4 billion Perseverance rover. Seven months after launch from Cape Canaveral on July 30, Perseverance landed in a targeted Martian crater on February 18 to kick off an ambitious mission to search for signs of past microbial activity in ancient lakebed deposits.

Ingenuity hitched a ride as a technology demonstration experiment. It carries no science instruments and is not part of the rover’s primary mission. The drone was added solely to test the feasibility of flight in the thin Martian atmosphere.

If successful, more advanced helicopters could be sent to Mars on future missions to carry science instruments to areas that might not be accessible to rovers or, eventually, astronauts.



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