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Ingenuity Is Suffering From A Spot Of Vertigo In Run-Up To Flight 29

Broken sensors and the arrival of the Martian winter mean that Ingenuity could be in for a sketchy few months.

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Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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The tiny Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars
A snap of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter taken by the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has given its Earth-bound engineers some headaches this week after it was discovered that one of its key navigation sensors is kaputt. But fear not, although the broken sensor will raise some problems, NASA is confident that the plucky Martian chopper will fly again. 

Preparations for its next flight have revealed that the vehicle's inclinometer has stopped working, Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Chief Pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a blog post.

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This is an instrument onboard the rotocopter that’s used to measure gravity prior to takeoff to gauge Ingenuity’s position relative to the ground below. Without it, it will be tough for Ingenuity to orientate itself before lifting off. It appears Ingenuity has vertigo. 

Fortunately, Grip and the team believe they can use other instruments on board to gather information usually provided by the inclinometer. Although this won't be quite as accurate, it should be enough to safely fly once again, said Grip. They'll also be rolling out a patch to Ingenuity’s flight software to ensure its navigation algorithms don't get confused

“A nonworking navigation sensor sounds like a big deal – and it is – but it’s not necessarily an end to our flying at Mars,” writes Grip. 

"Barring additional surprises, we anticipate that Ingenuity will take to the skies for Flight 29 – a repositioning move to the southwest designed to keep us within communication range of Perseverance – in the near future," he added. 

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Ingenuity is a teeny robotic helicopter that landed on the Martian surface on February 18, 2021, alongside the Perseverance rover. In April 2021, it became the first vehicle to fly on another world, hovering for about 30 seconds and reaching a maximum height of 3 meters (10 feet). Since its maiden voyage, it’s made a phenomenal 28 more flights above the Red Planet’s surface.

Flying a chopper on Mars is even harder than it sounds. The planet has significantly lower gravity than Earth and an extremely thin atmosphere, meaning the helicopter's rotor blades have notably fewer air molecules to "bounce off" and achieve flight. 

So far, Ingenuity has exceeded all expectations, but hard times are brewing: winter has arrived in Mars’ Jezero Crater, bringing a harsh drop in temperatures, shorter days, and increased dust storms. China's Zhurong rover has already entered hibernation to wait it out. 

NASA is preparing for this radical change, introducing a new winter operations program where Ingenuity will shut down and reset during the intensely cold night. During this time, its internal temperature will drop to approximately -80°C ( -112°F), which will undoubtedly put stress on the helicopter’s internal workings. 

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Paired with its broken inclinometer and aggressive dust storms, it looks like Ingenuity could be in for a very sketchy few months. We're rooting for you!


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