NASA Mars Ingenuity Helicopter's First Flight Could Now Be Next Week

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on Mars could be flying at some point next week, according to scientists working on the project.

In a public Q&A session posted online by NASA yesterday, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, gave updates on the status of the mission.

NASA announced last week that the helicopter's first flight had been delayed past its initial April 11 date to April 14. The agency later said this date would be pushed back even further, without providing a new one.

The reason for the delay is that engineers had encountered a software issue when they were conducting tests of Ingenuity ahead of its flight. A fix was identified, but it meant reinstalling the little helicopter's flight software.

In Wednesday's Q&A, Zurbuchen said: "The team is currently actively considering a bunch of options and is really making progress towards addressing the issue that has stopped us. And our assumption is, right now… we should be getting back to flight some time next week. That's what we think right now."

Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said the team had tested the fix they have developed on a test version of Ingenuity based on Earth.

She explained the issue was to do with a "watchdog" system on board Ingenuity, which is there to make sure the flight computers are working correctly. It does this using a very accurate timing system, which was ever so slightly out-of-sync.

According to Aung, this "led the watchdog to say 'the computer's not healthy' even though they were. So that was the issue and so we have a workaround so that the timing is corrected."

She added: "This was a very, very subtle timing challenge. It is about a watchdog that is looking for a healthy computer that can 'stroke' the watchdog regularly."

"It's a very, very tiny timing mismatch that varies very slightly and so that's why we have just encountered it.

"In fact we have tested this exact environment on Earth, and in that time it did not occur."

Zurbuchen said such timing variations do sometimes happen and they are not exclusive to Ingenuity. "These things really do happen, these timing issues. I remember having one on one of the instruments that I built in the past, so it just happens in space."

When Ingenuity does fly it will be the first-ever powered flight on another planet. NASA hopes it will demonstrate technology that could be used in other Mars helicopters in future, and these could be used to transport things.

Ingenuity helicopter
A computer-generated image of the Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars. The helicopter was dropped off by the Perseverance earlier this month. NASA/JPL-Caltech