Third Date’s the Charm (Maybe): NASA Reschedules First Ingenuity Flight on Mars for Monday

Third Date’s the Charm (Maybe): NASA Reschedules First Ingenuity Flight on Mars for Monday
NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

NASA has given an eager public a new date for the Ingenuity helicopter’s first controlled flight on Mars: Monday, April 19. This would be the third time Ingenuity’s flight has been rescheduled to date, and with some luck, it might be the real deal.

On Saturday, the space agency announced that Ingenuity, its tiny 1.8 kg helicopter, would attempt to make its first flight on Monday at approximately 5:30 p.m. AEST. The new date follows two attempts that were delayed due to preflight checks and a command sequence issue that came up during a high-speed spin test of its rotors on April 9. That day, the test ended early due to a “watchdog” timer expiration while it was trying to transition the flight computer from pre-flight to flight mode, NASA explained.

Ingenuity’s watchdog timer oversees the helicopter’s command sequence and alerts the system in case there are any potential issues. If there is a problem, the watchdog timer “helps the system stay safe” by not proceeding. Completing the spin test is an important milestone on Ingenuity’s path to flight.

Ingenuity’s flight team had been working on a solution to this problem in recent days. One involved adding a few commands to the helicopter’s flight sequence, while the other consisted of a modification and reinstallation of the helicopter’s flight control software. On Friday, Ingenuity successfully carried out the full-speed spin test it had been unable to complete on April 9.

To carry out the spin test, the team employed the flight sequence solution. The approach was tested extensively on both Earth and Mars, the flight team said in a status update on Friday, and was performed without jeopardising the safety of Ingenuity, which cost $US80 ($103) million and took years to develop. However, the team affirmed that it was still undecided on which solution to adopt for Ingenuity’s first flight.

“The software swap is a straightforward fix to a known issue,” the team wrote. “But, it will take a bit longer to perform and is a modification to software that has remained stable and unchanged for close to two years. Validation and testing have taken several days, and transfer and loading of these new files will take several more.”

In the status update, the team said that it would have a meeting on Friday to analyse both solutions and determine which one it would adopt for Ingenuity’s first flight. The team did not guarantee on Friday that it would agree on a new flight date, but judging by NASA’s announcement, it very likely did.

The announcement did not reveal which solution the team had adopted in the end, although we’ll surely find out over the next few days.

If Ingenuity is successful, it will be the first time that any space agency carries out powered controlled flight on another planet. The tiny helicopter will attempt to make up to five test flights within a window of 30 Martian sols, or 31 Earth days. Using its downward-facing camera, it will take photos during its test flight, with the team expected to receive grainy black and white images at first and higher-resolution images later on.

During a previous news conference on Ingenuity’s flight, NASA officials said that the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars on its belly, will also attempt to capture images of its helicopter friend’s first flight.

NASA will begin hosting a live stream at 8:15 p.m. AEST on Monday, which is when the team will receive data from Ingenuity and find out whether its first flight was successful. You can watch the live stream on YouTube below, as well as on NASA’s app, website, and Facebook page. Additionally, if the flight does take place, NASA will hold a postflight briefing at 4:00 a.m. AEST on Tuesday.