NASA’s Ingenuity has taken to the sky again but this flight, its sixth, was not the smooth sailing the Mars helicopter has experienced previously. An unexpected problem put the rotocopter at risk, causing it to lurch for a brief wild ride, but it "muscled through it" according to Ingenuity's chief pilot, managing to land within 5 meters (16 feet) of its intended landing zone.
During the flight, ingenuity’s navigation system glitched and that led the helicopter to begin tilting back and forth towards the end of its flight. The motion was quite dramatic with oscillation of up to 20 degrees and spikes in power consumption, which you can see in the video below.
“Approximately 54 seconds into the flight, a glitch occurred in the pipeline of images being delivered by the navigation camera. This glitch caused a single image to be lost, but more importantly, it resulted in all later navigation images being delivered with inaccurate timestamps,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Chief Pilot, explained in a blog post.
This sequence of images – taken on May 22, 2021, by the navigation camera aboard NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – depicts the last 29 seconds of the rotorcraft’s sixth flight. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Images of the terrain are how Ingenuity navigates around Mars. A missing image was more than just a spanner in the works, forcing the onboard software to try to constantly match what it was seeing with the incorrect version of what it had seen before.
But the Mars helicopter team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory built a vehicle that can withstand the unexpected and no matter the risky journey, Ingenuity remains safe and still wildly successful.
“We designed Ingenuity to tolerate significant errors without becoming unstable, including errors in timing. 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,” Grip explained.
Ingenuity had been conceived as a technology demonstration to explore whether powered flight on another world was even possible, but it has been so successful that NASA promoted it to an operational partner of Perseverance, the rover if flew to Mars with, to actively help Perseverance explore and analyze Mars.