NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on the red planet for several weeks, and it recently deployed the helicopter drone that rode there attached to its belly. NASA previously said the Ingenuity helicopter would take to the Martian skies over the weekend, but the agency announced late Friday that liftoff was delayed until at least April 14 because of a software issue. Now, the agency says the necessary fix will delay the flight even longer. How long is anyone’s guess.
The issue cropped up during a software operation on Friday, one of the final steps to get the helicopter ready to make history. The robot spun up its carbon fiber rotors during the pre-flight test. However, NASA reports the test ended early due to a “watchdog” timer expiration. This system is designed to halt the start-up sequence in the event the software throws an error, so it did its job. NASA stresses that Ingenuity is still completely functional, as far as we can tell on Earth. The helicopter beamed back its full telemetry and is still in communication with Earth.
The team identified the problem on Monday and has now confirmed that the helicopter needs a bug fix update. Developing that software is apparently very straightforward, but the process of validating and installing it will take time. After all, no one is around to hard reset the robot if something goes wrong. NASA engineers will have to validate the code, load it on Ingenuity, and finally boot the robot on the new software. Once that’s complete, NASA will re-run the spin-up test in preparation for flight.
When Ingenuity is prepped and ready, it will make history as the first aircraft to take flight on another planet. It’s only a technology demonstration, though. That means there are no important scientific packages or sensors on the tiny robot. In fact, it probably won’t live more than a few months on Mars. NASA says it will release a more precise timeline as it begins the process of delivering the helicopter’s OTA update.
The process of loading new software on Ingenuity should at least be simpler than it would be on other space missions. In addition to the incredible accomplishment of flying on Mars, Ingenuity is also making history with its hardware. Whereas Perseverance and other missions are built from the ground up for harsh environments, Ingenuity uses off-the-shelf components. That’s why it can be small enough to take to the skies, and it’s also much more computationally powerful than Perseverance, which runs the equivalent of a 20-year-old Mac processor.
The low temperatures and dust storms will probably wreck the unshielded helicopter in a matter of months, but hopefully not before NASA can get the drone flying. This kind of approach could radically change the way we explore distant locales, but the first step is getting this drone in the air.
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