NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is in trouble

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter can’t seem to catch a break. After months of trouble, the Mars-based spacecraft is now facing another major problem. A key part of Ingenuity’s navigation system has stopped working, leaving the craft unable to take flight.

Ingenuity’s navigation system just hit a snag

NASA’s Mars helicopter sitting on the surface of the planet. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity survived its first near-death experience back in 2021. But the Mars-based helicopter’s troubles didn’t stop there. It also lost signal earlier this year, causing NASA engineers to halt Perseverance’s exploration for a few days. The connection was eventually regained, but now Ingenuity faces a bigger problem: readying for the Martian winter.

Sure, NASA is already in the throes of making that happen. But new reports show that the team behind the spacecraft is running into some issues along the way. With the lower temperatures, Ingenuity’s navigation system has encountered a massive issue. The craft’s inclinometer isn’t working, and that means it can’t tell which direction is down.

Ingenuity’s navigational system relies on three main parts to navigate within its flights. These three parts have played key parts in all the record-breaking flights the helicopter has taken so far. But, without the inclinometer, the algorithm that runs these three systems can’t kick things off. As such, NASA is having to look for ways to tell which direction is down without that key part.

NASA plans to impersonate the inclinometer somehow

Ingenuity needs key parts of its navigational system to navigate the rocky Martian terrain. Image source: NASA/JPL

The inclinometer plays a key role in navigating on Mars because it determines what the spacecraft’s attitude is. This helps it ultimately determine where the ground is so that it can calculate how to keep the craft upright during flight. Now, though, NASA has to find a way to work without this important part of Ingenuity’s navigation system.

One way that they hope to do this is by estimating the initial attitude using the craft’s inertial measurement unit (IMU). The IMU is responsible for measuring accelerations and angular rates in three directions. It works with the craft’s laser rangefinder and navigation camera to make flight possible. It also includes accelerometers similar to those the inclinometer uses to determine the initial launch attitude.

It’s these accelerometers that NASA hopes to use to rig Ingenuity’s navigation systems to work without the inclinometer. It will be a less accurate way to measure the attitude, but it could work to allow the spacecraft to keep flying. The redundancy requires a patch, though, which NASA engineers are working on.

NASA hopes to get the workaround up and running within the next few sols. If all works according to plan, the Mars helicopter will take flight once more, allowing it to stay within communication range of Perseverance and on-mission.

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