Click for full image.
The engineers running the Mars helicopter Ingenuity revealed today that they will be attempting their most ambitious flight for the helicopter’s ninth flight, presently scheduled for no earlier than July 4th.
I have annotated the map to the right to show Ingenuity’s present position and its approximate landing area.
Without question this flight will be the riskiest taken by Ingenuity so far, more than doubling the flight distance achieved on any previous flight. More important, it will be flying over terrain far rougher than it was initially designed for.
Rather than continuing to skip ahead of the rover, however, we will now attempt to do something that only an aerial vehicle at Mars could accomplish – take a shortcut straight across a portion of the Séítah region and land on a plain to the south. On the way, we plan to take color aerial images of the rocks and ripples that we pass over.
To accomplish this feat, we will break our own records for distance, time aloft, and groundspeed. Ingenuity will be instructed to fly 2,051 feet (625 meters) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remain airborne for approximately 167 seconds. This max effort will also challenge Ingenuity’s navigation algorithm in a fundamentally new way. This onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah. The undulations can cause oscillations of a few meters in the altitude control of the helicopter but Ingenuity flies sufficiently high above the terrain that this will not be a problem.
However, these slopes and abrupt changes in the slope path can also cause significant heading deviations as the slanted ground images taken by the camera are interpreted onboard using a flat-ground assumption. There is the distinct possibility that the cumulative effect of this is a large lateral error at the destination landing site, with delivery errors of many tens of feet (or meters). We have taken mitigation steps to minimize this by flying slower over the challenging sections we encounter in the early portions of the flight to reduce the down-track errors from a large initial heading error.
Nevertheless, even though the final destination is centered in a good 164-foot-radius (50-meter-radius) patch of clear ground, it is possible that we will end up landing on a more treacherous, higher-relief surface than the relatively benign, sandy patches we have been able to pick so far. And it will stretch the capabilities of the helicopter’s telecom system, which was designed for line-of-sight communication over distances of a few hundred meters. All of this amounts to a significantly elevated risk, and it is safe to say that it will be the most nerve-wracking flight since Flight 1.
In more plain English, they are gambling and this flight might be a test to failure. Since Ingenuity was designed from the get-go as an engineering test, not a science instrument, testing to failure is really the correct thing for them to do. They need to push their software and hardware to figure out what it can, and more importantly, cannot do. Once they know these limits it will teach them how to design future Mars flying machines to be smarter and more capable.
Thus, the ninth flight might be the last for Ingenuity. It is also possible it will survive, and fly again. Expect that next flight or so to push things even more.
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