Details of NASA Ingenuity’s ninth record flight to Mars

We wrote yesterday that the JPL had announced the success of the ninth flight of NASA Ingenuity its Mars. In the initial release, however, there were only some partial data and not the details of this important test, one of the most complex since the beginning of the mission drone.

It must in fact be considered that in this test the distance, the flight time and the maximum speed were in all cases higher than that seen in the previous tests. A real challenge for the small helicopter located on the Red Planet in the vicinity of the NASA Perseverance rover. Now the JPL engineers have finally given us more complete news.

The details of the ninth flight of NASA Ingenuity

According to the latest post on the mission’s official blog, the ninth flight was also a success (but we already knew this). Unlike what was previously written, the flight did not take place on 4th July but on 5th July at 11:03 (Italian time). This is why the complete information arrived a few days late.

NASA Ingenuity for this flight he had to travel the record distance of 625 meters remaining in the air for 2 minutes and 46 seconds. Although it may seem short, it is a considerable distance and greater than that obtained by adding the previous four flights.

As the engineers pointed out, however, that was not the focus of the test but rather demonstrating that solutions like i drones they can overcome treacherous areas for rovers. In particular, the helicopter was able to fly over the called area Séítah which has a sandy surface with dunes.

Because of the laser altimeter used by drone (which works with good accuracy up to an altitude of 10 meters) we have always tried to fly on flat ground. With the ninth flight, however, things changed due to the presence of sandy dunes.

The new challenges of Ingenuity and some “tricks”

Engineers didn’t think they could go that far with demonstrations when they developed the mission. So the flight system uses an algorithm that avoids calculating the actual altitude from the ground “making him believe” to fly on flat ground as the missions were actually meant to fly on flat surfaces. This allowed to reduce the complexity of the calculations avoiding that problems could be created and therefore cause orientation difficulties up to the loss of the drone.

In the area of Séítah there are however some dunes, as explained above. To overcome the problem of an algorithm that “thinks” to fly on flat ground when this is not, the trick was therefore adopted to adapt the flight speed to the situation.

By flying at slower speeds, the navigation system has more time to process the data and therefore can be more accurate when traveling on uneven terrain. This entails “to waste” of flight time but reduces the possibility of generating errors.

The algorithm was then corrected in some points, although it could not be modified to implement the navigation correction on land with dunes. Last modification was made to the landing area which was brought to have a radius of 50 meters, therefore larger than the previous ones. This gave more leeway to NASA Ingenuity to hit the target.

Another good news is that the drone managed to still capture color images with the camera gives 13 MPixel. The photographs will be downloaded next week and will be critical to NASA Perseverance and the mission in the same area (especially the superficial fractures called “Raised Ridges”). Also thanks to the color photographs it will be possible to have a closer look at the area of “Pilot Pinnacle” where there are rocky outcrops that once were at the bottom of Lake Jezero. This will be interesting because it is possible that the rover will not be able to reach them to respect his roadmap and therefore the images collected by Ingenuity will be the only close-ups that scientists will be able to study.

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