A report released this week suggests that 50 flights into its five-flight schedule, the Mars helicopter might be starting to show its age. The report details a protracted communications outage Ingenuity’s flight controllers struggled with for six sols after flight 49 back in April. At first attributed to a “communications shadow” caused by the helicopter’s robotic buddy, Perseverance, moving behind a rocky outcrop and denying line of sight, things got a little dicey once the rover repositioned and there was still no joy. Since the helicopter has now graduated from “technology demonstration” to a full-fledged member of the team tasked with scouting locations for the rover while respecting the no-fly zone around it, it was essential to get it flying again. Several attempts to upload a flight plan failed with nothing but an acknowledgment signal from the helicopter, but a final attempt got the program uploaded and flight 50 was a complete if belated success. So that’s good, but the worrying news is that since Sol 685, the helicopter has been switching in and out of nighttime survival mode. What that portends is unclear, but no matter how amazing the engineering is, there’s only so much that can be asked on Ingenuity before something finally gives.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Completes 50th Flight
While NASA’s Perseverance rover brought an array of impressive scientific equipment to the surface of Mars, certainly its most famous payload is the stowaway helicopter Ingenuity. Despite being little more than a restricted-budget experiment using essentially only off-the-shelf components that you can find in your smartphone and e-waste drawer, the tenacious drone managed to complete its fiftieth flight on April 13 — just days before the two year anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19th of 2021.
Engineers hoped that Ingenuity would be able to show that a solar-powered drone could function in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars, but the experiment ended up wildly exceeding expectations. No longer a simple technology demonstrator, the helicopter has become an integral part of Perseverance’s operations. Through its exploratory flights Ingenuity can scout ahead, picking the best spots for the much slower rover, with rough terrain only becoming a concern when it’s time to land.
Since leaving the relatively flat Jezero Crater floor on January 19th of 2023, Ingenuity has had to contend with significantly harsher terrain. Thanks to upgraded navigation firmware the drone is better to determine safe landing locations, but each flight remains a white-knuckle event. This is also true for each morning’s wake-up call. Although the rover is powered and heated continuously due to its nuclear power source, Ingenuity goes into standby mode overnight, after which it must re-establish its communication with the rover.
Though there’s no telling what the future may hold for Ingenuity, one thing is certain — its incredible success will shape upcoming missions. NASA is already looking at larger, more capable drones to be sent on future missions, which stand to help us explore the Red Planet planet faster than ever. Not a bad for a flying smartphone.
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Hackaday Links: October 9, 2022
Don’t you just hate it when you walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe? That’s a little bit like what happened when the Mars helicopter Ingenuity picked up a strange bit of debris on one of its landing pads. The foreign object was spotted on the helicopter’s down-pointing navigation camera, and looks for all the world like a streamer of toilet paper flopping around in the rotor wash. The copter eventually shed the debris, which wafted down to the Martian surface with no further incident, and without any apparent damage to the aircraft. NASA hasn’t said more about what the debris isn’t — aliens — than what it is, which of course is hard to say at this point. We’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably something we brought there, likely a scrap of plastic waste lost during the descent and landing phase of the mission. Or, you know, it’s getting to be close to Halloween, a time when the landscape gets magically festooned with toilet paper overnight. You never know.
Martian Successes Reshape Sample Return Plans
For as long as humans have been sending probes to Mars, there’s been a desire to return rock, soil, and atmosphere samples back to Earth for more detailed analysis. But the physics of such a mission are particularly demanding — a vehicle that could land on the Martian surface, collect samples, and then launch itself back into orbit for the return to Earth would be massive and prohibitively expensive with our current technology.
Instead, NASA and their international partners have been working to distribute the cost and complexity of the mission among several different vehicles. In fact, the first phase of the program is well underway.
The Perseverance rover has been collecting samples and storing them in 15 cm (6 inch) titanium tubes since it landed on the Red Planet in February of 2021. Considerable progress has also been made on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) which will carry the samples from the surface and into orbit around the planet, where they will eventually be picked up by yet another vehicle which will ultimately return them to Earth.
But there’s still some large gaps in the overall plan. Chief among them is how the samples are to be transferred into the MAV. Previously, the European Space Agency (ESA) was to contribute a small “fetch rover” which would collect the sample tubes dropped by Perseverance and bring them to the MAV launch site.
But in a recent press release, NASA has announced that those plans have changed significantly, thanks at least in part to the incredible success of the agency’s current Mars missions.
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Hackaday Links: June 5, 2022
The big news this week comes from the world of medicine, where a woman has received a 3D-printed ear transplant. The 20-year-old woman suffered from microtia, a rare congenital deformity that left her without a pinna, the external structure of the ear. Using scans of the normal ear, doctors were able to make a 3D model of what the missing pinna should look like. Raw material for the print was taken from the vestigial ear of the patient in the form of cartilage cells, or chondrocytes. The ear was printed using a bioprinter, which is a bit like an inkjet printer. The newly printed ear was placed into a protective structure and transplanted. The operation was done in March, and the results are pretty dramatic. With a little squinting, it does look a bit like there are some printing artifacts in the ear, but we’d imagine that’s more from the protective cage that was over the ear as it healed.
Hackaday Links: May 1, 2022
We start this week with news from Mars, because, let’s face it, the news from this planet isn’t all that much fun lately. But a couple of milestones were reached on the Red Planet, the first being the arrival of Perseverance at the ancient river delta it was sent there to explore. The rover certainly took the scenic route to get there, having covered 10.6 km over the last 424 sols to move to a position only about 3.5 km straight-line distance from where it landed. Granted, a lot of that extra driving was in support of the unexpectedly successful Ingenuity demonstration, plus taking time for a lot of pit stops along the way at interesting features. But the rover is now in place to examine sedimentary rocks most likely to harbor the fossil remains of ancient aquatic life — as opposed to the mainly igneous rocks it has studied along the crater floor so far. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.
Hackaday Links: April 10, 2022
A funny thing happened on the way to the delta. The one on Jezero crater on Mars, that is, as the Perseverance rover may have captured a glimpse of the parachute that helped deliver it to the Red Planet a little over a year ago. Getting the rover safely onto the Martian surface was an incredibly complex undertaking, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was completely autonomous. The parachute, which slowed the descent vehicle holding the rover, was jettisoned well before the “Sky Crane” deployed to lower the rover to the surface. The parachute wafted to the surface a bit over a kilometer from the landing zone. NASA hasn’t confirmed that what’s seen in the raw images is the chute; in fact, they haven’t even acknowledged the big white thing that’s obviously not a rock in the picture at all. Perhaps they’re reserving final judgment until they get an overflight by the Ingenuity helicopter, which is currently landed not too far from where the descent stage crashed. We’d love to see pictures of that wreckage.