NASA's Mars helicopter is ready to make its first flight attempt after a two-week communications blackout caused by the sun's being directly between Earth and the Red Planet.
The Ingenuity helicopter, a technology demonstration drone that was supposed to fly at most five times within a month, has instead flown 13 successful sorties to date, accompanying the car-sized Perseverance rover on its explorations of their Jezero Crater landing site. NASA's entire Mars fleet took a vacation in early October, as the sun blocked communications from Earth in what's dubbed a solar conjunction. But now, the helicopter is ready to dust off its skills, with its mission team targeting a flight as early as Saturday (Oct. 23).
"Now that conjunction is over, #MarsHelicopter can attempt flight 14," mission personnel wrote in a tweet on Thursday (Oct. 21). "Ingenuity successfully performed a 50 rpm [rotations per minute] spin test this week & will do a short hop no earlier than Oct. 23."
The communications pause came just after two other challenges faced the Ingenuity team. First, as the seasons change on Mars, the atmosphere over Jezero Crater is thinning, making it more difficult for the helicopter to build lift. To address that challenge, engineers programmed Ingenuity to spin its blades even faster, targeting a flight at 2,700 rpm.
But that flight didn't happen. On Sept. 18, when Ingenuity was scheduled to take off, its automatic system detected anomalies in two of its six flight-control servo motors. Because these parts control the tilt of the helicopter's blades for steering, Ingenuity conducts a "servo wiggle" before each flight to ensure all six are working properly. But on that flight day, they weren't, so Ingenuity skipped the flight attempt.
Engineers on the Ingenuity team used the rest of the month to analyze the situation and conduct a few extra servo wiggles, but they weren't ready to attempt another flight before solar conjunction.
During the solar conjunction, Ingenuity also marked six months from its deployment in early April. Over the course of its 13 flights to date, it has covered about 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers) according to NASA's flight log, and the images it has captured during those flights have guided Perseverance in its own exploration of the region.