NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Challenge: Two Paths to First Flight on Mars

NASA Mars Helicopter Ingenuity

NASA Mars Helicopter Ingenuity successfully executed a rapid spin test.

Yesterday, April 16, on the 154th anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s birth, the Ingenuity flight team received information that the helicopter was able to complete a rapid spin test. The completion of the full-speed spin is an important milestone on the path to flight as the team continues to work on the command sequence issue identified on Sol 49 (April 9).

How did we get to this milestone? As with any engineering challenge, there are multiple approaches that are considered. In this case, the team has been working two potential solutions in parallel. The approach that led to today’s successful spin test entailed adding a few commands to the flight sequence. This approach was tested extensively on both Earth and Mars, and was performed without jeopardizing the safety of the helicopter. A second approach requires minor modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software. The software swap is a straightforward fix to a known issue. But, it will take a bit longer to perform and is a modification to software that has remained stable and unchanged for close to two years. Validation and testing have taken several days, and transfer and loading of these new files will take several more.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Sol 55

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter using its Left Mastcam-Z camera, on April 16, 2021 (Sol 55). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Which approach to take? Later tonight, a decision meeting is planned to review all the data from both solution paths, including the analyses, testing, and validation efforts—both here at JPL and on Mars. We will then select the path forward for a first flight. We know people are eager to learn the first flight date, so we’ll update this blog on Saturday morning if a flight date decision is reached.

What we’ve learned from this experience is: working any challenge means all approaches should be considered, even those that may involve risk. Without risk, there is no reward. Just ask the Wright brothers! Working issues in parallel is the hallmark of so many engineering efforts, and we’re proud of what our team has accomplished this week. We’ll keep you posted on our progress toward the first powered flight on Mars.

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