NASA’s helicopter engine needs a flight control software update before the first flight to Mars

NASA wit helicopter on Mars illustration

Illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity team has identified a software fix for the scripting issue identified on Sol 49 (April 9) during a planned high-speed spin test of the helicopter’s rotors. Over the weekend, the team considered and tested multiple potential solutions to this problem, and concluded that a minor modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software is the most robust way to go. This software update will modify the process by which the two flight controllers are started, allowing the hardware and software to safely go into flight state. Modifications to the flight software are being independently reviewed and validated today and tomorrow on the test benches at JPL.

Wit begins to turn its blades

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter performs a slow turn test of its blades on April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sun, of the mission. This image was captured by navigation cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

While developing the new software change is straightforward, the process of validating it and completing your uplink to Ingenuity will take some time. A detailed schedule to reschedule the high-speed turn test and the first flight is still in process. The Ingenuity flight control software update process will follow established processes for validation with careful and deliberate steps to move the new software through the rover to the base station and then to the helicopter. Intermediate milestones include:

  • Diagnose the problem and develop possible solutions.
  • Develop / validate and upload software
  • Load the flight software on the flight controllers
  • Boot Ingenuity in a new flight software

Once these milestones are passed, we will prepare Ingenuity for its first flight, which will take several suns, or Mars days. Our best estimate of a target flight date is fluid at the moment, but we are working towards achieving these milestones and will set a flight date next week. We are confident in the team’s ability to overcome this challenge and prepare for Ingenuity’s historic first powered controlled flight on another planet.

Mastcam-Z wit up close

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoom cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, the 45th Martian sun of the mission. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

Ingenuity is still healthy on the surface of Mars. Critical functions such as power, communications, and thermal control are stable. It’s not unexpected that a tech demo like this will run into challenges that need to be addressed in real time. The high-risk, high-reward approach we’ve taken to first powered, controlled flight on another planet allows us to scale performance in ways we couldn’t with a years-long mission like Perseverance. Meanwhile, while the Ingenuity team does its job, Perseverance will continue to do science with its suite of instruments and is preparing for a demonstration test of MOXIE technology.

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