Wednesday, October 5, 2022

NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter survives an anomaly during its sixth flight on Mars

NASA‘s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter recently completed its sixth flight; however, a glitch occurred in the pipeline of images being delivered by the navigation camera that gave incorrect information about where it was flying.

The sixth flight of the Ingenuity, which took place on May 22, was the first in the framework of the helicopter reconnaissance flights program, which started in early May this year. Ingenuity was commanded to climb to an altitude of 33 feet (10 meters) before translating 492 feet (150 meters) to the southwest at a ground speed of 9 mph (4 meters per second). At that point, it was to translate 49 feet (15 meters) to the south while taking images toward the west, then fly another 164 feet (50 meters) northeast and land.

At the beginning of the attempt, everything went well. However, after traveling the planned 150 meters, the helicopter began to oscillate and change speed unexpectedly – which, according to the agency, occurred as a way for the spacecraft to find balance again after problems. Ingenuity began adjusting its velocity and tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern.

The cause of the failure was that one of the many images taken by the helicopter to orient itself did not register in the navigation system. It resulted in all later navigation images being delivered with inaccurate timestamps, which led to the craft continually adjusting its position. Hence Ingenuity began to oscillate in the air.

Despite encountering this anomaly, Ingenuity was able to maintain flight and land safely on the surface within approximately 16 feet (5 meters) of the intended landing location.

We designed Ingenuity to tolerate significant errors without becoming unstable, including errors in timing,” wrote Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Chief Pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in the blog post. “This built-in margin was not fully needed in Ingenuity’s previous flights because the vehicle’s behavior was in-family with our expectations, but this margin came to the rescue in Flight Six.”

Ingenuity, in turn, ignored the camera images in the final moments of flight, stopped oscillating, leveled its attitude, and touched down at the speed as designed. The team is working to correct that issue, but it does help prove that Ingenuity is stable enough to fly itself even when something goes wrong.

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