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The Mars helicopter returns from its ninth flight with color pictures

Landing diligently to serve as a testament to the concept, the ingenuity – NASA’s Mars helicopter – has already surpassed all engineers’ expectations. Its first eight test aircraft demonstrated its flight performance, its ability to navigate correctly and land steadily on Mars soil. But looking at Flight 9, fear reigned within NASA. For the first time, the engine had to travel through rough terrain (including diving into a ditch), although it was not initially configured. Not only did the maneuver go smoothly, but the ingenuity returned with the color pictures of the Martian soil.

Flight 9 is not like its predecessors. It broke records for flight time and travel speed, and almost quadrupled the distance traveled between the two aerodromes. But what really differentiated this aircraft was the ingenuity of having to negotiate in the air in its 2 minutes and 46 seconds – an area known as the Chetta, which is difficult to cross with a ground vehicle like the diligent rover. The aircraft is clearly designed to be of scientific value, providing the rover with the first closer look at key research targets that have not been reached for some time.

In each of its previous flights, the ingenuity has jumped from one aerodrome to another, mostly on flat terrain. When planning previous flights, operators were careful to avoid flying over a ditch. But on Flight 9, the craft first appeared as a heavily eroded crater, then descended continuously on a sloping, hilly terrain before re-ascending to emerge on a flat plain in the southwest.

Photo of the Chata Mars area taken by the rover of diligence. Flight 9 flew ingeniously over this rough area. © NASA / JBL-Caltech

Ingenuity: A helicopter designed to fly on flat surfaces

It may seem odd that terrain details are so important to a vehicle traveling through the air. The reason is related to the ingenuity navigation system and what it was originally designed for: a brief technical demo on the carefully selected test site.

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When we humans see images of the earth moving like images taken by an ingenious navigation camera, we immediately understand what we are seeing. We see rocks and ripples, shadows and textures, and the landscapes are relatively clear. However, the intellect does not have the vision of man and the understanding of seeing it. He sees the world in terms of personal, anonymous characteristics – basically moving points over time – and he tries to explain the movement of those points.

Ingenuity 9 Path Map
Map showing the path taken by ingenuity during flight 9 (in yellow). © NASA / JBL-Caltech

To facilitate this work, the engineers helped with the ingenious navigation algorithm: they said that all of these structures were located on level ground. This freed the algorithm from the need to calculate variations in the altitude of the landscape and allowed it to focus on interpreting the movement of elements by the movements of the helicopter. But problems arise if he tries to fly on terrain that is not really flat.

Differences in terrain elevations cause features to move at different speeds in the field of view, and the ingenious navigation algorithm always “assumes” that the ground below is flat. Tries to explain the movement of elements due to changes in the movements of the helicopter, which can lead to errors. Most importantly, it can cause errors in the estimated heading, which can lead to the helicopter flying in a different direction than intended.

Reward carefully tuned functionality and color images

The assumption that the ground is flat is structured in the design of the algorithm and cannot be changed when planning flights. Operators can only expect problems arising out of this assumption and mitigate them as much as possible based on the flight planning and the parameters provided for the software.

Simulation tools allow the aircraft to be examined in detail for its effects before proceeding. For Flight 9, the main adaptation of the aircraft program is to slow down at critical points while diving into the abyss. Although this came at the expense of extended flight time, it helped mitigate initial header errors that could turn into a major cross-level error.

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Fixed some detailed parameters of the navigation algorithm that have not been changed so far on previous flights. The largest airspace was determined at a radius of 50 meters over the previous aircraft. The craft was completed 47 meters from the center of the aerodrome.

In the coming week, the scientists of diligence will ingeniously send out color pictures that will be of interest to read. The rock outcrops captured in these images show the connections between the major geological units in the soil of the Jesero gorge. They also include the fracture system, which the diligence team calls “elevated ridges,” which astronomers hope to explore to determine if an ancient underground habitat can be preserved there.