Mars Helicopter Ingenuity survives sixth flight despite in-flight anomaly

Mars Helicopter Ingenuity was originally expected to complete its campaign after just five flights. After extraordinary performance on in the initial flights, demonstrating the possibility of powered flight on Mars, NASA JPL decided to extend the campaign to gather more information.

The fourth and fifth flight: preparations

The fourth flight of Ingenuity saw the helicopter fly 133meters to a potential new landing field. The helicopter gathered color images of the area and returned to the Wright Brothers Field where it first took off. When planning for a landing zone, the team put lots of time into finding a sufficiently flat and clear area where the helicopter could take off and land repeatedly. Each flight had seen Ingenuity make a return trip to the airfield, but the fifth flight was different. Ingenuity made its first one-way trip. The fifth flight saw Ingenuity return to the same point that it surveyed on the fourth flight and climb to a record altitude of 10meters to take photos. This touchdown marked the beginning of the new exploration phase of the mission for Ingenuity.

Plan for the sixth flight

The plan for the sixth flight was for Ingenuity to travel 150 meters southwest to gather color imagery while moving sideways. The stereo images created by this help show the distance to various object, creating a type of 3d map. After capturing about 20 meters of the color imagery, Ingenuity was to go 50 meters northeast and land at an all-new base of operations known as Field C. Field C had not been surveyed by Ingenuity, instead, the team was reliant on images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in order to ensure the area was safe to land.

In flight anomaly

For almost a minute into the flight, all went as planned. It was toward the end of the 150 meters of traveling that problems began. The helicopter was oscillating back and forth, seeing a large amount of roll and spikes in power consumption. The oscillations did not cease as Ingenuity continued its flight, but Ingenuity was able to touchdown successfully near the planned location in Field C. So what went wrong? NASA goes into more detail in their post on the flight but the issue stemmed from the camera-based navigation system. Much like many hobby drones, Ingenuity uses two main systems to determine its location; a ground-facing camera, and an IMU that measures acceleration and rotation. Every image from the camera system is connected with a specific timestamp so Ingenuity knows when it was taken. During the flight, a glitch caused a single image to be lost, resulting in the times for all the future images being slightly off. The inaccurate times led to the helicopter correcting for errors in its location that were actually non-errors. This created a feedback loop; where the helicopter was constantly overcorrecting. Imagine how hard it would be to drive quickly through an obstacle course if you could only see where you were one second ago.

The successful landing was the result of a brilliant design decision. During the final portion of landing, the helicopter relies solely on the information from the accelerometers in the IMU, rather than the camera. While this decision was made in order to combat the dust on the surface impacting accuracy, it certainly paid off!

What’s next for Ingenuity?

Well, we haven’t been told for certain. It is likely the teams at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory will take some time to figure out precisely what caused the image to get lost and find a fix before they attempt another flight. It is possible they return to gather the stereo imagery that they attempted to capture with this flight, if the unwanted motion interfered too much. The good news is, with Ingenuity safety on the ground and online, once a solution is found, Ingenuity will be ready to make another flight and continue to expand out humanities knowledge.

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