July 5, 2022

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NASA TV

A NASA helicopter on Mars has already made 28 flights and its future is now uncertain

If it flies, the little helicopter flies in the sky Mars 5 times – maximum – over a 31-day period.

But over the past year, the brave little helicopter known as Creativity has soared across the Martian sky 28 times, exceeding expectations and giving scientists a new location on the Red Planet. Over the past 13 months, the helicopter has been in the air for about an hour, travels about 7 kilometers, has a maximum speed of 20 kilometers per hour, and a maximum height of 12 meters.

He traversed craters, took pictures of hard-to-reach areas of Earth, worked as a surprisingly flexible detector that adapted to the changing atmosphere of Mars and survived cold nights and harsh dust storms.

But now engineers and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in NASA She worries: Their solar-powered drone may be nearing the end of its life.

Winter has begun on Mars. Dust rises to coat the Ingenuity solar panels and prevents them from fully charging the six lithium-ion batteries. This month, for the first time since it landed on Mars more than a year ago, Ingenuity missed a scheduled communication session with Perseverance, the Mars rover it relies on to send data and receive commands from Earth.

Will Creativity, covered in dust, survive the Martian winter, when temperatures dip below -73 degrees Celsius? And if it doesn’t, how is the world supposed to remember the tiny helicopter that cost $80 million to develop and more than five years to design and build? Those close to the project say that now that his journey is drawing to a close, it’s hard to overstate his accomplishments.

“The helicopter far exceeded initial expectations,” said Laurie Glaese, director of NASA’s planetary science division. Washington Post.

As the Martian atmosphere was shaken up, the scientists and engineers who worked on innovation were not confident that the experiment would succeed. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the time that it was an initiative that forced NASA to find “the right line between madness and innovation.”

So, with the success of the first flight on April 19, 2021, NASA declared it a worthy moment for the Wright brothers. As an estimate, Ingenuity had a piece of cloth from the brothers’ plane, known as the Flyer, attached to a cable under the solar panel.

Creativity traveled to Mars chained in the belly of the Perseverance Rover, the star of NASA’s latest Mars mission. After traveling 480 million kilometers over seven months, Perseverance made a dramatic landing in February 2021, under an umbrella containing a secret code that reads: “Dare to do great things.”

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The SUV-sized rover landed in an area of ​​Mars known as Jezero Crater, which once contained water and could provide clues about the planet’s history and whether it once harbored life. The craft was collecting rock and soil samples that NASA hopes to send back to Earth on a future mission, as well as using its seven instruments to conduct scientific experiments and test new technologies.

The innovation was something of an add-on, a technology experiment that could be useful for future missions and allow space agency scientists to explore more of Martian landscapes than they could from Earth.

But flying a self-driving drone on Mars would be very difficult. The atmosphere represents only 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere. So, to generate lift, the five-foot-wide helicopter blades must spin at an astonishing speed: 2,500 revolutions per minute.

“We built it as an experiment,” Gilles said. “So he didn’t necessarily have the qualifying parts that we use on big errands like perseverance.” Some of these parts, such as the components of a smartphone, were even improvised, so “the chances were that it wouldn’t work as well as we expected. There was a risk that something wouldn’t go well.”

But as creativity continues, Earth watchers are beginning to realize that their small project can accomplish big things. Prior to their fifth flight, they wrote a blog post: “Our helicopter is more powerful than we expected. The power system we’ve been worrying about for years provides more than enough power to fly during the day and keep heaters running at night. The temporary components of our guidance and navigation systems work very well, and so does our rotor system.” Everything is going well.”

As creativity continues to work, NASA scientists are increasingly fascinated by the idea that the helicopter might play an important role in the mission.

“What happened is, after the Ingenuity was doing really well on those first five flights, the Perseverance science team came up to us and said, ‘You know what, we want this helicopter to keep working to help us with our exploration. And to achieve our scientific goals Glaze said.

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So NASA decided to continue the flights. On its sixth voyage, creativity ran into problems. The helicopter navigates with a camera that takes 30 pictures per second of the terrain below, each with a time stamp. The algorithm predicts what the camera should see at that particular moment based on photos taken moments before. The algorithm then calculates the difference between the expected location and the actual location of the land features to correct for their location, velocity and elevation.

But on this trip, the appointments were off. As a result, creativity appears to be being driven by a drunk driver, who “adjusts his speed and tilts back and forth in a wobbly pattern,” NASA reported in the blog.

However, it was able to land safely within 5 meters of its target due to “the great effort that was made to ensure that the helicopter’s flight control system had a ‘margin of stability'”, NASA wrote. In other words: “In the truest sense of the word, the creativity arose in face the challenge.”

Flight 9, in July, was also “nail-biting,” NASA wrote. Not only because Ingenuity broke records in flight duration and cruise speed, but because it flew over a crater, “an area called Séítah that would be difficult to traverse with a land vehicle like the Perseverance rover,” NASA wrote in the blog.

Built as a technology experiment, the engineers designed it to fly over flat terrain, making it easier to navigate using the onboard camera. However, on this trip, creativity will have to dive into the crater of the volcano. This requires him to slow down and for engineers to adjust his navigation algorithm. The flight was a success, and Ingenuity was able to send back color images of the area, even a site that some believe “may record some of the deepest aquatic environments in ancient Jezero Lake,” NASA wrote. “Due to the mission’s tight schedule, it is likely that they will not be able to visit these rocks by rover, so Ingenuity may present the only opportunity to study these deposits in detail.”

Since then, creativity has progressed, overcoming one obstacle after another. Sometime in September, it discovered an engine problem during a pre-flight check and “did exactly what it was supposed to do: cancel the flight.”

After about a month, the issue was fixed and it started working again.

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In April, Ingenuity made another discovery: Flying over the parachute that slowed the rover to land on Mars, it spotted the ruins of the hull that had protected the rover as it dived toward the surface of Mars. A pair of man-made objects have been left on another planet, Gleese said, and the images “just amazed me.” In the past, NASA was able to determine the locations of vehicles on the surface of Mars using spacecraft in distant orbit. But here they are, up close, in such high resolution that you can see the words “Dare to do great things” encoded through a thin layer of red dust.

Then, ten days later, on April 29, he boarded his last flight to date, Flight 28, a 400-meter flight that took two and a half minutes. Now NASA is wondering if it will be the last.

The space agency believes that its inability to fully charge the batteries has caused them to enter a low energy state. When I went idle, the helicopter’s onboard clock was reset, the same way home clocks are reset after a power outage. So the next day, when the sun came up and began charging the batteries, the helicopter was out of sync with the rover: “Essentially, when Ingenuity thought it was time to call Perseverance, the rover’s base station wasn’t listening,” NASA wrote.

Then NASA did something unusual: It ordered diligent mission controllers to spend most of May 5 listening for cues from the helicopter.

Finally, a little ingenuity invited him home. NASA said the wireless link was “stable” and the helicopter was in good shape and the battery was 41% charged.

But, as NASA cautioned, “The radio session doesn’t mean creativity is out of harm’s way. More dust (which reduces brightness) in the air means that charging the batteries to a level that allows critical components (such as the clock and heaters) to conserve power all night will be a challenge.” big.”

Perhaps creativity will fly again. Maybe not. “At this point, I can’t say what’s going to happen in the future,” Gilles said. “We are still working to try and find a way to resume flights. But perseverance is the main task, so we need to start setting our expectations correctly.” / Translation by RENATO PRELORENTZOU