NASA Mars Helicopter Has a Dead Sensor, but It Might Still Fly

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This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has done everything it set out to do and much, much more. Will its legacy of flight be extended? The rotorcraft’s team is dealing with a serious technical issue, but it’s hoping a software patch can help.

Ingenuity — the flying companion to NASA’s Perseverance rover — is trying to survive wintry conditions in the Jezero Crater. It was originally built to demonstrate that powered, controlled flight was possible on Mars. The helicopter achieved that feat in April 2021. It has since flown 28 times The colder and shorter days are now taking a toll, though, causing the solar-powered chopper to shut down overnight and expose its components to frigid temperatures. 

During recent preparations for another flight, the Ingenuity team discovered the helicopter’s inclinometer, a navigation sensor, had stopped working. 

“A nonworking navigation sensor sounds like a big deal — and it is — but it’s not necessarily an end to our flying at Mars,” Ingenuity chief pilot Havard Grip said Monday in a status update.

Ingenuity uses a suite of sensors to figure out where it is in space, information that’s needed for takeoff, flight and landing. 

“The inclinometer consists of two accelerometers, whose sole purpose is to measure gravity prior to spin-up and takeoff; the direction of the sensed gravity is used to determine how Ingenuity is oriented relative to the downward direction,” Grip said. Fortunately, the inclinometer data isn’t needed during the actual flights.

The rotorcraft needs a different way to get the same information the inclinometer would have provided. The rotorcraft team’s clever fix involves using a different sensor to handle the broken sensor’s duties. To do that, the team is sending Ingenuity a software patch.

Even better, Ingenuity’s handlers thought something like this might happen. 

“Anticipating that this situation could potentially arise, we prepared the required software patch prior to last year’s arrival on Mars and kept it on the shelf for this eventuality,” Grip said.

If could take a few days to install and test the patch, but NASA hopes the chopper will take to the Martian skies “in the near future” for flight No. 29, which would help keep it in communication with Perseverance as the rover explores an intriguing delta region.

Ingenuity has survived a series of technical glitches during its time on Mars, so hope is warranted once again.

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