Problem with camera-based navigation system saw helicopter wobble through the air in biggest tech issue Ingenuity has faced
Fri 28 May 2021 00.23 EDT
A navigation timing error sent Nasa’s Mars helicopter on a lurching ride, its first major problem since it took to the Martian skies last month.
The experimental helicopter, named Ingenuity, managed to land safely after the problem occurred, officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Thursday.
The trouble cropped up about a minute into the helicopter’s sixth test flight on Saturday at an altitude of 10 metres (33ft). One of the numerous pictures taken by an onboard navigation camera did not register in the system, confusing the craft about its location.
Ingenuity began tilting back and forth by as much as 20 degrees and suffered power consumption spikes, according to Havard Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot.
A built-in system to provide extra margin for stability “came to the rescue”, he wrote in an online status update. The helicopter landed within five metres (16ft) of its intended touchdown site.
Grip wrote: “Ingenuity muscled through the situation, and while the flight uncovered a timing vulnerability that will now have to be addressed, it also confirmed the robustness of the system in multiple ways.
“While we did not intentionally plan such a stressful flight, Nasa now has flight data probing the outer reaches of the helicopter’s performance envelope.”
Ingenuity became the first aircraft to make a powered flight on another planet in April, two months after landing on Mars with Nasa’s rover Perseverance.
The 1.8kg (4lb) helicopter successfully made its first five flights, each one more challenging than before. Nasa was so impressed by the $85m tech demo that it has extended its mission by at least a month.
Saturday’s troubled flight was the first for this bonus period. Engineers have spent the past several days addressing the problem.
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