Ingenuity’s 62nd Flight And Attempting A New Speed Record

One of the fun aspects of exploring a new planet is that you can set a lot of new records, as is the case with the very first Mars-based helicopter, Ingenuity. Since its inaugural flight on April 19th of 2021, Ingenuity has flown 61 times, setting various records for distance traveled and other parameters. Although setting the first record is easy on account of anything being better than literally nothing, the real challenge lies in exceeding previously set records, as the team behind Ingenuity seeks to do again with flight 62 and a new speed record.

Targeting October 12th, the goal is to travel 268 meters (1.33 furlong) at a maximum altitude of 18 meters while hitting 10 meters per second (36 km/h), which would shatter the 8 m/s (28.8 km/h) set by flight 60. Although still quite a distance to the 240 m/s required to hit Mach 1 on Mars, the fact that this feat is being performed by a first-of-its-kind helicopter in the thin Martian atmosphere, using off-the-shelf components that were expected to last maybe a handful of flights, is nothing short of amazing.

(Thanks to [Mark Stevens] for the tip!)

(Top image: Fourth flight of Ingenuity (circled), captured by Perseverance rover. Source: NASA/JPL)

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Hackaday Links: August 20, 2023

In some ways, we’ve become a little jaded when it comes to news from Mars, which almost always has to do with the Ingenuity helicopter completing yet another successful flight. And so it was with the report of flight number 54 — almost. It turns out that the previous flight, which was conducted on July 22, suffered a glitch that cut the flight short by forcing an immediate landing. We had either completely missed that in the news, or NASA wasn’t forthcoming with the news, perhaps until they knew more. But the details of the error are interesting and appear related to a glitch that happened 46 flights before, way back in May of 2021, that involves dropped frames from the video coming from the helicopter’s down-facing navigational camera. When this first cropped up back on flight six, it was only a couple of missed frames that nearly crashed the craft, thanks to confusion between the video stream and the inertial data. Flight engineers updated the aircraft’s software to allow for a little more flexibility with dropped frames, which worked perfectly up until the aborted flight 53.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: August 20, 2023”

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Hackaday Links: July 16, 2023

Last week, we noted an attempt to fix a hardware problem with software, which backfired pretty dramatically for Ford when they tried to counter the tendency for driveshafts to fall out of certain of their cars by automatically applying the electric parking brake.

This week, the story is a little different, but still illustrates how software and hardware can interact unpredictably, especially in the automotive space. The story centers on a 2015 Optima recall for a software update for the knock sensor detection system. We can’t find the specifics, but if this recall on a similar Kia model in the same model year range and a class-action lawsuit are any indication, the update looks like it would have made the KSDS more sensitive to worn connecting rod damage, and forced the car into “limp home mode” to limit damage to the engine if knocking is detected.

A clever solution to a mechanical problem? Perhaps, but because the Kia owner in the story claims not to have received the snail-mail recall notice, she got no warning when her bearings started wearing out. Result: a $6,000 bill for a new engine, which she was forced to cover out of pocket. Granted, this software fix isn’t quite as egregious as Ford’s workaround for weak driveshaft mounting bolts, and there may very well have been a lack of maintenance by the car’s owner. But if you’re a Kia mechanical engineer, wouldn’t your first instinct have been to fix the problem causing the rod bearings to wear out, rather than papering over the problem with software?

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Hackaday Links: July 9, 2023

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.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: July 9, 2023”

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Hackaday Links: June 4, 2023

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.

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Simulated ET To Phone Home From Mars This Afternoon

In science fiction movies, communicating with aliens is easy. In real life, though, we think it will be tough. Today, you’ll get your chance to see how tough when a SETI project uses the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to send a simulated alien message to the Earth. The transmission is scheduled to happen at 1900 UTC and, of course, the signal will take about 16 minutes to arrive here on planet Earth. You can see a video about the project, A Sign in Space,¬†below.

You don’t need to receive the message yourself. That will be the job of observatories at the SETI Institute, the Green Bank Observatory, and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics. They’ll make the signal available to everyone, and you can join others on Discord or work solo and submit your interpretation of the message.

Drake’s message properly arranged

There are a host of issues involved in alien communication. What communication medium will they use? How will they encode their message? Will the message even make sense? Imagine an engineer from 1910 trying to find, decode, and understand an ad on FM radio station 107.9. First, they’d have to find the signal. Then figure out FM modulation. Then they’d probably wonder what the phrase “smartphone” could possibly mean.

When [Frank Drake] created a test message to send to aliens via the Arecibo dish, almost no one could decode it unless they already knew how it worked. But even looking at the message in the accompanying image, you probably can only puzzle out some of it. Don’t forget; this message was created by another human.

If you want a foreshadowing of how hard this is, you can try decoding the bitstream yourself. Of course, that page assumes you already figured out that the stream of bits is, in fact, a stream of bits and that it should be set in an image pattern. You also have the advantage of knowing what the right answer looks like. It could easily become an extraterrestrial Rorschach test where you find patterns and meaning in every permutation of bits.

Speaking of the Drake message, it saddens us to think that Arecibo is gone. The closest we think we’ve come to intercepting alien messages is the Wow signal.

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Giving A Tinge Of Color To The Mars Map Courtesy Of The UAE’s Hope Orbiter

Since the United Arab Emirates’ Hope (“Al-Amal”) orbiter made it safely into orbit around Mars on February 9, 2021, it’s been busy using its onboard instruments to measure everything it could about not only the planet’s atmosphere but also its surface and how both change seasonally. The first months of results of these detailed captures of Mars have now been released in the form of the full-color Mars Atlas website, and a pretty well made PDF version of the Atlas that can be downloaded from the website.

Although the Emirates Mars Mission is not the first to capture the surface or seasons of Mars — with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)’s Context Camera¬† (CTX) having gifted us the result of many thousands of captures in a massive monochrome mosaic of Mars’ surface — it’s good to remember that Hope is only just getting started. The current atlas is the result of about 3,000 captures from the Emirates eXploration Imager (EXI) multi-band camera (with better than 8 km spatial resolution), with new images in the pipeline.

Hope has transitioned from a low 1,072 km orbit to a higher, science orbit on March 29, which gives the orbiter a good view of the seasonal transitions on the Red Planet. Along with data from other current Mars orbiters, we should be able to piece together the most detailed atlas yet, even before more helicopters will zip along Mars’ surface.