The Ingenuity helicopter had risen to every challenge it faced on Mars so far, and now it’s confronting a new one. But the little chopper will live to fly another day — specifically on Friday.
Ingenuity was supposed to lift off Thursday for a flight that pushed it further, faster and longer than before. However, the flight didn’t happen as planned. The helicopter’s team reported that Ingenuity remains safe and in good condition.
“Aim high, and fly, fly again. The Mars Helicopter’s ambitious fourth flight didn’t get off the ground, but the team is assessing the data and will aim to try again soon. We’ll keep you posted,” read an update from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Twitter account posted on Thursday afternoon.
The 4-pound chopper was scheduled to attempt its fourth flight on the red planet Thursday at 10:12 a.m. ET, or 12:30 p.m. local Mars time.
Data sent back by the helicopter at 1:21 p.m. ET Thursday showed that the helicopter did not transition to flight mode. This is required before any flights can happen, according to the team.
This is the first real bump in the road since Ingenuity’s initial flight attempt was rescheduled from April 11 to April 19 due to a flight software issue.
The team believes this same software issue kept the helicopter from flying on Thursday.
The helicopter’s computer includes a watchdog timer that expires and prevents flight if it senses any hindrances. However, there is a known issue concerning a 15% chance that this timer could expire each time the helicopter attempts a flight. This likely is what occurred Thursday. The time-out does not prevent future flights, the team said.
Another attempt of the fourth flight will occur Friday at 10:46 a.m. ET, or 12:30 p.m. local Mars time. The first flight data will be returned to the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, at 1:39 p.m. ET.
Prior to this, Ingenuity aced three flights flawlessly.
In fact, the mission has met all of its objectives. The fourth and fifth flights really are meant to test and push its capabilities.
“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of powered, controlled flight at the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a statement.
“Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration, which means it has a limited time to meet objectives set by its mission team.
The data from its experimental flights on Mars this month could inform the design of other rotorcraft to fly on Mars and other planets that can act as scouts for rovers and astronauts alike.
The three main objectives for Ingenuity involved flying through the thin Martian atmosphere; demonstrating powered, controlled flight on another planet; and pushing the capabilities Ingenuity showed during testing on Earth. All of those targets have been met over the course of the helicopter’s three flights thus far.
“When Ingenuity’s landing legs touched down after that third flight, we knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” said J. “Bob” Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL, in a statement. “Now we plan to extend our range, speed, and duration to gain further performance insight.”
According to the fourth flight plan, Ingenuity will ascend to its usual altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and then fly south for 276 feet (84 meters). It will pass over rocks, small impact craters and sand ripples and use its black-and-white navigation camera to image this intriguing landscape every 4 feet (1.2 meters).
Ingenuity will travel a total of 436 feet (133 meters) downrange from its “helipad” in Wright Brothers Field, stop for a hover and collect images with its color camera before heading back to its landing site.
“To achieve the distance necessary for this scouting flight, we’re going to break our own Mars records set during flight three,” said Johnny Lam, backup pilot for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “We’re upping the time airborne from 80 seconds to 117, increasing our max airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than doubling our total range.”
The Perseverance rover also will be poised to capture images and video of Ingenuity’s flight.
Once data and images are returned from the fourth flight, the mission team will determine their plan for the helicopter’s fifth outing. Plans for the remaining flight campaign will be discussed during a virtual briefing hosted by NASA on Friday at 11:30 a.m. ET.
“We have been kicking around several options regarding what a flight five could look like,” Balaram said. “But ask me about what they entail after a successful flight four. The team remains committed to building our flight experience one step at a time.”
Check CNN.com for updates on the results of this historic fourth flight mission.