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World Space Week: Update on the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity from Teddy Tzanetos

PASADENA, CA – World Space Week is an international celebration of science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition. The United Nations General Assembly declared in 1999 that World Space Week will be held each year from October 4-10. These dates commemorate two events: The October 4, 1957 launch of the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, thus opening the way for space exploration; and the October 10, 1967 signing of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Greek-American Teddy Tzanetos, deputy operations lead for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, on September 3 posted an update on the Mars Helicopter’s blog, titled Lucky 13 – Ingenuity to Get Lower for More Detailed Images during Next Flight.

Tzanetos begins with a quote from Winston Churchill who said: “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”

“Following Flight 12’s scouting images of ‘South Séítah,’ which were the most valuable Ingenuity has taken to date, we are taking Winston’s advice for Ingenuity’s 13th flight,” Tzanetos wrote, adding that “we will again be venturing across into Seítah to scout an area of outcrops glimpsed in Flight 12 imagery – but we’re taking these new pictures while looking back, pointing in the opposite direction.”

“Taking place no earlier than Saturday, Sept. 4 at 5:08 PM PDT, or 12:04 LMST (local Mars time), the 193rd sol (Martian day) of the Perseverance mission, the flight will again journey into the geologically intriguing South Séítah region,” Tzanetos continued, noting that “however, instead of probing further into Séítah and taking pictures of multiple ridgelines and outcrops (which we did on 12), we’ll be concentrating on one particular ridgeline and its outcrops during Flight 13. We’ll also be flying at a lower altitude – 26 feet (8 meters), as opposed to the 33 feet (10 meters) during 12.”

“Another big difference is which way our camera will be pointing, Tzanetos, noted. “For Flight 13, we’ll be capturing images pointing southwest. And when they’re combined with Flight 12’s northeast perspectives, the overlapping images from a lower altitude should provide valuable insight for Perseverance scientists and rover drive planners.”

“When you compare our estimated flight time and distance travelled for this trip, it again reinforces just how much we’re concentrating our efforts in one small area,” he pointed out, adding that “on Flight 12 we covered 1,476 feet (450 meters) of Martian ground in 169.5 seconds and took 10 pictures (again – all pointed northeast). On 13, we’ll cover about 690 feet (210 meters) in around 161 seconds and take 10 pictures (pointing southwest).”

“And for those of you scoring at home, on 13 we’ll also be traveling at 7.3 mph (3.3 meters per second),” Tzanetos wrote, noting that “we did 10 mph (4.3 meters per second) during 12.”

Tzanetos’ complete post, which includes a ledger of the most important numbers for Ingenuity’s Mars flights so far, is available online: https://go.nasa.gov/3B9TTzp.

“We’re looking forward to add to these numbers and learning more about that ridgeline when ‘lucky 13’ is in the books,” Tzanetos noted.

Flight 13 was indeed a success on September 4, traveling about 689 feet horizontally and reaching an altitude of about 26 feet. The duration of the flight was 160.5 seconds.

Following a successful high-speed spin test on September 15, test flight 14 was scheduled for September 18 “and was supposed to be a brief hover flight at 16 feet (5 meters) altitude with a 2,700 rpm rotor speed,” wrote Jaakko Karras, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Deputy Operations Lead at NASA's JPL, on September 28, adding that “it turned out to be an uneventful flight, because Ingenuity decided to not take off.”

Karras explained: “Ingenuity detected an anomaly in two of the small flight-control servo motors (or simply ‘servos’) during its automatic pre-flight checkout and did exactly what it was supposed to do: It canceled the flight.”

“We have a number of tools available for working through the anomaly and we’re optimistic that we’ll get past it and back to flying again soon,” Karras wrote in the most recent blog post, noting that “our team will have a few weeks of time to complete our analysis because Mars will be in solar conjunction until mid-October, and we won’t be uplinking any command sequences to Ingenuity during that time.”

“Conjunction is a special period in which Mars moves behind the Sun (as seen from Earth), making communications with spacecraft on Mars unreliable,” Karras pointed out, adding that “Ingenuity will not be completely idle during this time, however; Ingenuity and Perseverance will be configured to keep each other company by communicating roughly once a week, with Ingenuity sending basic system health information to its base station on Perseverance.”

“We will receive this data on Earth once we come out of conjunction, and will learn how Ingenuity performs over an extended period of relative inactivity on Mars,” Karras concluded. More information is available online: https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/.  

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