NASA plan to get creative during Martian winter

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Resourcefulness, autonomous NASA The Mars helicopter was supposed to make only five flights. But ever since it became historic the first flight in April 2021, the helicopter made 28 flights, preparations are underway for the 29th. Depending on dust levels and the Perseverance rover’s schedule, this flight could take place as early as this week. But now Ingenuity is facing a new challenge: It’s unclear if the helicopter will survive the coming Martian winter, which begins in July.

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Since the Martian year on Earth is about two years, and the helicopter is in the northern hemisphere, this is Ingenuity’s first winter. As the solstice approaches, the days become shorter and the nights longer, and dust storms may become more frequent. All of this means less sunlight for the solar panels mounted above two 4-foot helicopter rotor blades. Dust on solar panels recently wrote the end operations of NASA’s InSight Mars lander, and the effects of cold on the electronics are thought to have played a role in the completion of the missions of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers.

“We believe it will survive,” Dave Lavery, NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter program manager, told WIRED, “but “every extra day is a gift.” Recently, the JPL Ingenuity team was led by Teddy Tzanetos. posted on the NASA blog that “each sol (Martian day) could be Ingenuity’s last”.

Last month, Ingenuity briefly lost contact with Earth due to reduced battery life, much of which is spent on heating. NASA re-established contact with Ingenuity two days later, but with battery levels dropping below 70 percent and constantly dropping temperatures, Ingenuity will suspend nighttime onboard heaters to conserve power through the four-month winter. Heaters typically turn on when temperatures drop below -5 degrees Fahrenheit, down to -40 after running out of battery power and shutting down communications last month. Outside temperatures during a Martian winter can drop as low as -112 at night, increasing the chance of damage to the electronics inside the helicopter.

Monday NASA announced sensor failure, the delay of Flight 29, and a requirement for NASA to install a software patch and rely on another sensor to drive Ingenuity’s navigational algorithms.

Dust storms are the X factor. The study published in May, a team from the University of Houston studied four Martian years of NASA sensor data and found that solar imbalances and warm weather in the south increase the likelihood of massive dust storms that could blanket the entire planet. Spring and summer are known as storm seasons, but the likelihood of major storms decreases as the north approaches the winter solstice, says University of Houston associate professor Liming Lee. But there is a caveat: the study is global in nature and does not take into account any particular region. The conditions in the craters can also be different than the rest of the surface, and the helicopter is operating in Jezero Crater.

“It’s hard to say,” Lee said when asked if more dust storms are expected. “It’s hard to give a clear picture of the radiation balance in Jezero Crater until we measure it.”

As Ingenuity halts normal flight activity, the team will focus on transferring data such as flight performance logs and high definition images from the last eight flights and software updates. Based climate modelNASA expects solar energy levels to recover to levels that will allow normal activity to resume this fall. By September or October, if Ingenuity can regain the ability to heat its systems at night, it can resume regular flights while exploring potential locations for Persistent rover hide collection rock and soil samples and explore what scientists believe was once a river delta within Jezero crater.

Although the first flight of Ingenuity was called “Wright brothers moment on another planet”, the site of the first flight is now called the “Wright brothers landing site”, and Ingenuity even carries with it a strip of muslin fabric that was wrapped around the wings of the Wright brothers’ 1903 plane. Ingenuity is not an airplane, and it cannot be controlled by a person. Because it takes five to 20 minutes for a radio signal from Earth to reach Mars, Ingenuity must use fully autonomous flight systems and operate without sensors, such as the lidar used by helicopters on Earth and some NASA spacecraft. A single down-facing camera helps Ingenuity determine position, speed and altitude.

Improvements to these systems could be rescheduled during the helicopter’s winter downtime. “If Ingenuity is able to continue later this year, after the Martian winter has passed, the team is currently considering several flight system upgrades that will increase system reliability and/or improve helicopter navigation capabilities,” Lavery wrote in an email. to WIRED.

For example, Lavery says NASA will test its autonomous hazard avoidance system in known areas. The conditions for the first helicopter flights to Mars were relatively benign, but the usefulness of AI for proactive hazard avoidance increases as the helicopter tries to land in places with more potential obstacles. Lavery says these systems were developed alongside the original Ingenuity flight system, but not as part of a version launched from Cape Canaveral in 2020.

Last month, JPL researchers who helped create autonomous flight systems for a Martian helicopter shared achievements in AI to predict the best place to land in an unknown area during an emergency. These kinds of emergency landing systems will play a role in future NASA missions such as Dragonfly2027 mission to send a quadcopter to Titan, Saturn’s moon.

Like Ingenuity, the Saturn drone, which will arrive in 2035, will fly millions of miles from Earth and will need to operate without human assistance. Unlike Ingenuity, which flew to Mars under the belly of Perseverance, Dragonfly will take off a little more than an hour after reaching Titan, breaking away from the parachute and airshell per flying in the air to launch a two-year nuclear mission to search for life.

Lessons learned from Ingenuity could also help plan future missions to Mars. NASA’s Ames Research Center and JPL began work on a second-generation helicopter two years before the first one reached the Red Planet. Lavery compares ingenuity to Sojourner, the first rover sent to Mars, which landed in 1997. Since then, virtually every ground mission has had a rover. “We hope that Ingenuity will do something similar, that it will become a standard part of the mission toolkit,” he says.

NASA ROAMKS the project is developing improvements that will be included in the next helicopter, such as changes to the rotor blades that reduce drag and could allow it to carry a scientific payload of about 2 pounds for a distance of about 4 miles. In a presentation on future missions to Mars last year, NASA Principal Investigator Hayley Cummings said the rotor blade improvements discovered by ROAMX would be incorporated into the Mars Science Helicopter, a six-rotor 66-pound hexacopter that could lose a rotor but still work. concept drone was first proposed in White paper published in early 2021.

An experimental flying vehicle for Mars was developed during over two decades. These include a lampshade-shaped helicopter, swarms of small drones, a weather balloon-launched glider, and tilt-rotor machines that switch between flying as a helicopter or an airplane. Future concepts could explore areas that rovers can’t reach and could eventually bring tools and supplies for humans to Mars.

Ames Research Center scientists suggest automated base stations, small clamshell-shaped aircraft hangars that protect aircraft from cold and dust and prolong their life for many years. Extending the lifespan of drones could extend their use beyond a single mission, allowing them to become part of a network of machines, large and small, that can perform tasks such as exploring lava tubes, volcanoes, or ice caps. The development of forms of fully autonomous flight may also have applications for commercial drones or ground flight systems. Drones today typically use GPS and a return-to-home function in the event of an emergency or power outage.

Lavery believes Ingenuity’s most important mission was completed on that first flight in April 2021. This 39-second flight proved that humans are capable of applying the principles of aerodynamics to fly to another planet. “Every flight since then, and all the data we collect with every subsequent flight, helps us further refine that knowledge,” says Lavery.

At best, the first four flights were no more than a few hundred feet and lasted about a minute. By the fifth flight, Ingenuity began to take risks, eventually flying over 4 miles. Then “Ingenuity” began to help the mission to study Martian geology and search for possible life forms. At the request of the scientific team of the Perseverance rover, Ingenuity took high-resolution photographs. Cliffs of the Fortun Ridge at the bottom of the Jezero crater, which are believed to be of volcanic origin. And Ingenuity also flew over part of the Ceita region, delivering images and information that the Perseverance rover can’t get, which “would just be impossible to capture if there wasn’t a helicopter there,” says Lavery.

In April, traveling at 12 mph, Ingenuity flew over 2,300 feet in a walk that lasted over two minutes, making it the longest and fastest flight on another planet. Later that month, Ingenuity received A photo of the parachute and balloon used to bring the Ingenuity and Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars, images that NASA wants to use to ensure safer landings for future spacecraft.

Lavery says Ingenuity’s first winter will be a challenge the team never expected to face, but now that they’ve shown it’s possible to fly a helicopter on Mars, there’s the potential to make flying companions a commodity for future missions to explore other celestial objects. “We haven’t made a decision yet on what the next one will be,” says Lavery. “But there is one thing I’m sure will be next.”

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