Good news this week from Mars, where Ingenuity finally managed to check in with its controllers after a long silence. The plucky helicopter went silent just after nailing the landing on its 52nd flight back on April 26, and hasn’t been heard from since. Mission planners speculated that Ingenuity, which needs to link to the Perseverance rover to transmit its data, landed in a place where terrain features were blocking line-of-sight between the two. So they weren’t overly concerned about the blackout, but still, one likes to keep in touch with such an irreplaceable asset. The silence was broken last week when Perseverance finally made it to higher ground, allowing the helicopter to link up and dump the data from the last flight. The goal going forward is to keep Ingenuity moving ahead of the rover, acting as a scout for interesting places to explore, which makes it possible that we’ll see more comms blackouts. Ingenuity may be more than ten-fold over the number of flights that were planned, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for retirement quite yet.
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.
Well, this is embarrassing! Imagine sending a multibillion-dollar rover to an ancient lakebed on Mars only to discover after a year of poking around at the rocks that it might not actually have been a lake after all. That seems to be the impression of Jezero Crater that planetary scientists are forming after looking at the data coming back from Perseverance since it nailed the landing in what sure as heck looked like a dried-up lake, complete with a river delta system. A closer look at the sediments Perseverance has been sampling reveals a lot of the mineral olivine, which on Earth is rare near the surface because it readily reacts with water. Finding lots of olivine close below the surface of Jezero suggests that it either wasn’t all that watery once upon a time, or that what water was there was basically ice cold. The results are limited to where the rover has visited, of course, and the nice thing about having wheels is that you can go somewhere else. But if you were hoping for clear signs that Jezero was once a lake teeming with life, you might have to keep waiting.
In other space news, we have to admit to taking NASA to task a bit in the podcast a couple of weeks back for not being quite up to SpaceX’s zazzle standards with regard to instrumenting the SLS launch. Yeah, a night launch is spectacular, but not having all those internal cameras like the Falcon has just sort of left us flat. But we should have been more patient, because the images coming back from Artemis 1 are simply spectacular. We had no idea that NASA attached cameras to the solar panels of the Orion spacecraft, which act a little like selfie sticks and allow the spacecraft to be in the foreground with Earth and the Moon in the background. Seeing Earth from lunar distance again for the first time in 50 years has been a real treat, and getting our satellite in the frame at the same time is a huge bonus.
OK, maybe that won’t buff right out. NASA has released a more detailed analysis of the damage suffered by the James Webb Space Telescope in a run-in with a micrometeoroid, and has deemed the damage “uncorrectable”. Not that any damage to JWST is correctable, at least in the sense that the Hubble Space Telescope was able to be fitted with optics to fix its precisely-yet-inaccurately-ground main mirror. JWST is far too remote for a service call, so correctability in this case refers to a combination of what can be accomplished by tweaking the shape and position of the affected mirror segment, and what can be taken care of with image processing. The damage to segment C3, as well as damage to the other segments in a total of six collisions in the half year Webb has been on station, are assessed via “wavefront sensing”, which looks at how out of phase the light coming from each mirror segment is. The damage sounds bad, and it certainly must hurt for the techs and engineers who so lovingly and painstakingly built the thing to see it dinged up already, but in the long run, this damage shouldn’t hamper Webb’s long-term science goals.
In other space news, we hear that the Perseverance rover has taken its first chunk out of the ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The rover has been poking around looking for something interesting to sample, but everything it tried out with its abrading tool was either too brittle, too hard to get at, or scientifically dull. Eventually the rover found a good spot to drill, and managed to bring up a 6.7-cm core sample. This makes the tenth core sample collected overall, and the first from the delta area, which is thought to have the best chance to contain evidence of ancient Martian life.
Closer to home, we’ve all likely heard of robotic surgery, but the image that conjures up doesn’t really comport with reality. Robot-assisted surgery is probably a better term, since surgical robots are generally just ultra-precise remote manipulators that are guided by a skilled surgeon. But if a study on surgery robot performance is any indication, the days of human surgeons might be numbered. The study compared accuracy and speed of both a human surgeon controlling a standard Da Vinci surgical robot and an autonomous version of the robot alone, using a depth camera for sensing. Using a standard surgical skills test, the autonomous system matched the human surgeons in terms of failures — thankfully, no “oopsies” for either — but bested the humans in speed and positional accuracy. It’ll probably be a while before fully autonomous surgeons are a thing, but we wouldn’t be betting against it in the long run.
Most readers will no doubt have heard the exciting news that Supercon will be back this year as an in-person event! Make sure you set aside the first weekend in November to make the pilgrimage to Pasadena — it’ll be great seeing everyone again after the long absence. But if you just can’t wait till November for an IRL con, consider dropping by SCALE 19X, coming up this week in Los Angeles. The Southern California Linux Expo is being held July 28 through 31, and features a ton of speakers, including a keynote by Vint Cerf. Hackaday readers can save 50% on tickets with promo code HACK.
And finally, as a lover of Easter eggs of all kinds, but specifically of the hidden message in software variety, we appreciated this ode to the Easter egg, the embedded artistry that has served as a creative outlet for programmers over the years. The article lists a few great examples of the art form, along with explaining why they’re actually important artifacts of the tech world and what they’re good for. We tried out a few of the ones listed in the article that we hadn’t heard of before; some hits, some misses, but they’re all appreciated. Well, most of them — the corporate rah-rah kind can bugger straight off as far as we’re concerned.
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.
It’s the same on Mars as it is here — just when you’re getting used to your job, the bosses go and change things up.
At least that’s our read on the situation at Jezero crater, where the Mars Ingenuity helicopter has just had its mission upgraded and extended. In a Friday morning press conference, the Ingenuity flight team, joined by members of the Perseverance team and some NASA brass, made the announcement that Ingenuity had earned an extra 30 sols of flight time, and would be transitioned from a mere “technology demonstrator” to an “operations demonstration” phase. They also announced Ingenuity’s fourth flight, which concluded successfully today, covering 266 meters and staying airborne for 117 seconds.