Ingenuity’s fourth Mars flight bonks, but NASA aims to try again

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Ingenuity did not leave the Mars surface as expected on Thursday for its fourth flight and NASA JPL engineers said they aim to try again. All the goals of the tech demo for the tiny helicopter have already been met. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars Helicopter Ingenuity did not leave the Mars surface as expected for its fourth flight on Thursday, NASA JPL tweeted shortly before 3 p.m. EDT.

 There was no early report as to what happened, only that the helicopter team was assessing the data it received and “will aim to try again soon.” 

“Aim high, and fly, fly again,” the team tweeted. “The #MarsHelicopter’s ambitious fourth flight didn’t get off the ground…”

The fourth flight from Wright Brothers Field on Mars was intended to take off at 10:12 a.m. EDT, with the data coming back to JPL in California at 1:21 p.m. EDT.

With all the main objectives of the helicopter drone technology demo already accomplished, NASA was hoping to push the envelope with speed and distance from its lift-off location in Jezero Crater.

In the fourth flight, Ingenuity was supposed to climb to 16 feet, then head south as its downward-facing nav camera collected images of the surface rocks and features every 4 feet to help navigate. It was expected to travel a total of 436 feet downrange and take images with a color camera before heading back to its starting point.

The time airborne was to be increased to 117 seconds up from 80 seconds in the third flight, with a doubling of the total range and a near doubling of max airspeed from 4.5 mph to 8 mph.

The third flight on April 25 took Ingenuity vertically 16 feet, with a flight downrange of 164 feet.  The third flight secured the third objective of the overall tech demo, so the focus was on pushing performance. “We knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL in an update posted April 28.

Even with only three flights, future Mars missions can confidently consider adding aerial exploration of caves, cliffs and crevices to science missions, said NASA’s Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division.

A problem developed earlier in the month-long tech demo before the first successful flight on April 19 when a highspeed rotor spin test on the Mars surface suddenly stopped on April 9 that was blamed on a subtle timing problem in software.  Engineers developed and deployed a fix with an 85% chance of success that apparently worked through the first three successful flights.

It isn’t clear if that earlier problem was somehow involved in the latest delay on Thursday.

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