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NASA's Mars Ingenuity Helicopter First Flight Postponed Indefinitely

Newsweek logo Newsweek 4/13/2021 Ed Browne
a group of people on a beach: This image of Ingenuity was captured by the Mastcam-Z imager on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on April 8, 2021. NASA is aiming to announce the helicopter's flight date next week. © NASA/JPL-Caltech This image of Ingenuity was captured by the Mastcam-Z imager on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on April 8, 2021. NASA is aiming to announce the helicopter's flight date next week.

NASA's Mars helicopter flight date has been pushed back again due to a software issue identified last week, the space agency said, meaning it won't fly this week.

The helicopter, called Ingenuity, has had the public waiting in suspense as it prepares to take off on Mars for the first time. When it does, it will mark the first powered flight on another world.

The flight test was originally penned for Sunday, April 11, but with just one day to go NASA announced it had identified a software issue during a high-speed spin test of the helicopter's rotors on April 9.

The issue arose when the helicopter attempted to switch from "pre-flight" mode into "flight" mode, NASA said, adding that the helicopter was not damaged. The spin test was canceled early by Ingenuity's on-board "watchdog" system, which protects it if everything is not working quite as planned, and NASA said the system had done its job.

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After that hurdle, the flight test was initially rescheduled for April 14 while engineers worked out exactly what had happened. Now, the Ingenuity team has said a solution to the problem has been found, but it means they have to reinstall the little helicopter's flight software.

This means the test flight date must be pushed back again by an unknown number of days. NASA is aiming to set a new date next week.

Ingenuity's flight software will be reinstalled as an updated version from before. This means the helicopter will start up in a different way, but should be able to successfully make the transition into "flight" mode in future.

Engineers are currently testing the update back on Earth before sending it over to Ingenuity.

The update itself is simple. The reason behind the delay is that Mars is so far away and the process for uploading data to the helicopter has to be painstakingly careful.

Engineers cannot just send an update to the helicopter. Data has to be sent to a "base station" located inside the Perseverance rover first, which is then forwarded on to Ingenuity.

Once that's done, NASA will again prepare the helicopter for its first flight, and this preparation will take several days.

The agency said: "Our best estimate of a targeted flight date is fluid right now, but we are working toward achieving these milestones and will set a flight date next week."

The helicopter's first flight is expected to see it hover a few feet in the air for 20 to 30 seconds before landing again.

The helicopter's critical power, communication, and thermal systems are all still working. Ingenuity survived its first night alone in the freezing conditions of Mars on April 5 after being dropped off by the Perseverance rover.

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