NASA delays helicopter flight to Mars after test turn ends abruptly

NASA has delayed the first flight of its Ingenuity Mars helicopter after a crucial spin test of the drone’s rotor blades came to an abrupt halt.

This was the last major test to make sure the helicopter would be ready for its maiden flight, which was originally scheduled for early Monday morning. Now NASA has delayed the historic liftoff, which would mark the first powered, controlled flight on another planet, until Wednesday.

For Friday’s test, Ingenuity was supposed to spin its blades at full speed while on the ground. The two pairs of blades should have turned in opposite directions at more than 2,500 rotations per minute, about eight times faster than a land helicopter. On the day of the flight, they will need that speed to carry the 4-pound drone into the thin Martian atmosphere. That air is only 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, making Ingenuity’s task equivalent to flying three times higher than the peak of Mount Everest.

mars helicopter wit nasa

The artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying through the Martian skies.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

But that test spin came to an abrupt halt when a “watchdog” timer expired, NASA announced Saturday. This timer terminated the script that instructed Ingenuity to perform each step of the test. The shutdown occurred when the script was attempting to transition the helicopter flight computer from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode.

“The watchdog timer monitors the script and alerts the system of any potential problems. It helps the system stay safe by not continuing if a problem is observed and is working as planned,” the NASA announcement said.

It is not yet clear what the problem was, but NASA said the helicopter is “safe and healthy” and fully communicates with mission controllers on Earth. The agency’s helicopter team is reviewing the test data to diagnose the problem. NASA will have to retry the full-speed spin before Ingenuity can fly.

The device could fly up to 5 times on Mars

NASA perseverance

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Seán Doran

The device traveled almost 300 million miles to Mars hidden inside the belly of the Perseverance rover. It has successfully deployed from its lowest hiding place, fell to the ground, survived the cold Martian nights on its own, charged with solar energy, and performed a series of system checks.

All the checks and tests had gone well until the full speed turn on Friday.

“So far so good, knock on wood,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, in a briefing before the final test on Friday.

For its first flight, Ingenuity is supposed to rise about 10 feet into the air, float, and then safely descend back to the ground. If that goes well, Ingenuity could attempt up to four more increasingly difficult flights.

mars helicopter wit nasa gif

NASA / JPL-Caltech

“We’re all a little nervous and excited at the same time,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate science administrator, told Insider on Friday. “We are all ready, but we will all feel better when it is done, and successful.”

This is a flight experiment, intended to show that helicopter technology can work on Mars. If successful, it could open the door for future space helicopters to study regions that rovers cannot reach – mountains, canyons, and rocky terrain – or even conduct reconnaissance for future Mars astronauts.

“Suppose it does indeed work. What we have proven is that we can add an aerial dimension to discovery and exploration on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “That aerial dimension, of course, opens up aspects of science and general exploration that, frankly, right now, are just our dreams.”

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