NASA is Having Technical Difficulties With the Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars

NASA is Having Technical Difficulties With the Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars
Image: NASA

Mars has seen plenty of action since NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on its surface. The latest of which involves the rover’s sidekick, the Ingenuity helicopter, taking its first flight.

Everything was in place for the helicopter’s take-off on the 12th of April but it seems even Mars isn’t immune to technical difficulties.

Ingenuity helicopter flight delayed

Late on Friday the 9th of April, NASA received some test data from the Ingenuity helicopter that caused Mission Control to delay the initial flight.

During a high-speed test of the helicopter’s rotors the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a watchdog timer expiration, NASA said in a statement. This expiration happened as it was trying to transition the flight computer from pre-flight to flight mode.

What exactly is a ‘watchdog’ timer you ask?

According to NASA:

“The watchdog timer oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed and worked as planned.”

The important thing is that despite this issue the Ingenuity is still safe and healthy and managed to communicate its full telemetry set back to Earth.

NASA said the helicopter team is reviewing the telemetry to try and pinpoint the issue. When they do they will reschedule a full test.

At this stage, NASA is saying the full flight test won’t occur until April 14 at the earliest.

What goes into a flight decision?

Ingenuity’s flight has been a mission in the making for years now, so any small risk isn’t worth taking.

NASA’s Bob Balaram, the Chief Engineer for the Mars Helicopter Project, described in a blog post the number of factors that impact a flight decision.

For starters, the Ingenuity can’t fly at night because it relies on its camera to navigate. It also needs to fit in with the Perseverance rover’s schedule. The rover keeps an eye on the helicopter with its two cameras but if it is performing other operations at the time, the flight will need to wait.

Balaram also explained that because of the helicopter’s solar-powered battery it needs a bit of time to charge up before the flight. So, engineers need to wait until midday or afternoon for the optimal flight window.

Lastly, there’s the weather on Mars to consider. The Ingenuity has been tested in simulated weather conditions but nothing can properly prepare it for the real winds on Mars. To aid with this NASA actually has a weather forecast team that uses simulators and stats recovered from Perseverance to estimate the conditions.

Given there are all these factors to consider, not to mention technical issues, it’s easy to see why Ingenuity’s flight has been delayed. It’s entirely possible this won’t be the only delay we see.

When NASA does eventually reschedule Ingenuity’s first flight you’ll be able to watch all the action live on NASA’s YouTube channel.