NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter recently completed a successful 54th flight, dubbed Flight 54, on the Martian surface on August 3, which comes after Flight 53 was unexpectedly shortened on July 22nd due to an anomaly. Flight 53 was scheduled to last 136 seconds but lasted only 74 seconds, and the recent Flight 54 was considered a short hop of 25 seconds to give the science and engineering teams insight into what caused the anomaly that led to the premature landing.
Image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter taken on Aug. 2, 2023, the 871st Martian day, or sol, of the mission, one day before Ingenuity’s Flight 54. This image was produced from data gathered by the Mastcam-Z instrument on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University/Malin Space Science Systems)
“Since the very first flight we have included a program called ‘LAND_NOW’ that was designed to put the helicopter on the surface as soon as possible if any one of a few dozen off-nominal scenarios was encountered,” said Teddy Tzanetos, who is a team lead emeritus for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “During Flight 53, we encountered one of these, and the helicopter worked as planned and executed an immediate landing.”
Image from NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter obtained from an altitude of approximately 16 feet (5 meters) during Flight 54 on Aug. 3, 2023, the 872nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. A portion of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover can be seen at the top right of center of the image. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Based on data from Flight 54, the team determined the premature landing occurred due to a sync mix-up between Ingenuity’s navigation camera image frames and data from Ingenuity’s inertial measurement unit (IMU), which is responsible for determining the craft’s position and speed. This was first experienced during Flight 6 when Ingenuity unexpectedly dropped several images causing exaggerated levels of pitching and rolling of the helicopter towards the end of the flight. After this incident, the team successfully updated the flight software to help alleviate similar incidents going forward pertaining to dropped images, and this fix proved successful until Flight 53.
“While we hoped to never trigger a LAND_NOW, this flight is a valuable case study that will benefit future aircraft operating on other worlds,” said Tzanetos. “The team is working to better understand what occurred in Flight 53, and with Flight 54’s success we’re confident that our baby is ready to keep soaring ahead on Mars.”
Arriving on Mars on February 18, 2021, and attached to the undercarriage of the Mars Perseverance rover, Ingenuity performed the first powered flight on another world on April 19, 2021. Each subsequent flight has accomplished a myriad of distances and flight times based on mission needs, with the goal of demonstrating that aerial scouting could be used on future Mars missions, including human missions, and other worlds, as well. While Ingenuity was initially built for a 30-day demonstration period, like most Mars missions it has greatly exceeded these expectations with its 54 powered flight on Mars and currently no end in sight.
What new feats will Ingenuity accomplish during its time on the Red Planet going forward? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!
As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!