NASA's Ingenuity helicopter just failed to lift off from the Martian surface, but it will try again on Friday

Morgan McFall-Johnsen
·4 min read
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Left: NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars, photographed by the Perseverance rover. Right: An illustration of Ingenuity flying. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Update: Ingenuity successfully completed its fourth flight on Friday, and NASA gave the helicopter an extended mission that will allow it to keep flying through May.

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter was scheduled to embark on its most daring flight yet on Thursday. But it failed to lift off, so NASA plans to try again on Friday.

Ingenuity made history when it flew for the first time on April 19 - a 10-foot hover that marked the first controlled, powered flight ever conducted on another planet. Since then, the 4-pound drone has completed two more flights, venturing farther and flying faster each time.

Ingenuity was in good shape after its last flight, in which it traveled roughly 330 feet out and back. It was set to attempt an even more ambitious adventure on Thursday: a 117-second flight in which the little drone was supposed to reach a record speed of 3.5 meters per second. The plan was for the helicopter to climb 16 feet into the air, fly south for about 436 feet, and snap photos of the Martian surface along the way. It was then supposed to hover for more photos, turn around, and fly back to its original spot for landing.

But Ingenuity's rotor blades didn't lift it up at all.

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The Perseverance rover snapped this photo of Ingenuity on the Martian surface on April 29. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The culprit is probably a software issue that first showed up during a high-speed spin test ahead of the chopper's first flight. That test failed because Ingenuity's flight computer was unable to transition from "preflight" to "flight" mode. Within a few days, NASA engineers resolved the issue with a quick software rewrite.

But those engineers determined that their fix would successfully transition the helicopter into flight mode only 85% of the time. The data that Ingenuity beamed back on Thursday indicated that it couldn't get into flight mode - so it may have hit one of the 15% of instances in which the software patch doesn't work.

"Today's delay is in line with that expectation and does not prevent future flights," NASA said.

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The Perseverance rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter before, left, and after it spun its rotor blades. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The helicopter is "safe and in good health," according to the agency, and it will reattempt its fourth flight on Friday at 10:46 a.m. ET. NASA engineers expect to receive the first data from that attempt about three hours later.

The Ingenuity team has just one more week to complete two flights that would push the chopper to its limits. By the fifth and final flight, Ingenuity's controllers plan to push the helicopter as far and fast as it can go. In the process, they expect Ingenuity to crash.

"We really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information back from that," MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a press briefing last week.

"That information is extremely important," she added. "This is a pathfinder. This is about, you know, finding if there any 'unknown unknowns' that we can't model. And we really want to know what the limits are. So we will be pushing the limits very deliberately."

NASA's space-drone dreams

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An illustration shows NASA astronauts working on the surface of Mars, with an Ingenuity-like helicopter flying to the left. NASA

Ingenuity's flights are experimental, meant simply to test what rotorcraft technology can do on Mars. So NASA expected that some of the attempts might fail. It's all in the interest of gathering data to inform the development of helicopter missions on other planets, which could do all kinds of science and exploration that a rover mission can't.

"We are aware that failure is more likely in this kind of scenario, and we're comfortable with it because of the upside potential that success has," NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told Insider.

Space helicopters similar to Ingenuity could someday survey difficult terrain from above, study large regions faster than a rover can, and even do reconnaissance for astronauts.

Such space drones could fly "over ravines, down canyons, up mountains," Josh Ravich, the mechanical lead for the Ingenuity team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Insider. "Even rocky terrain is fairly inaccessible to the rovers but much more easily accessed by a rotorcraft."

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An artist's impression of the Dragonfly helicopter on Titan's surface. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA already has one helicopter mission in development: A rotorcraft called Dragonfly is set to launch toward Saturn's moon Titan in 2027. It aims to investigate whether that methane-rich world could host alien life.

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