NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter was supposed to complete its fourth flight early yesterday, but data beamed back to Earth indicates that did not happen. NASA isn’t worried, though. This appears to be the same issue that caused the delay in Ingenuity’s first flight timeline. NASA says it’s planning to try this one again today, and we should know in a few hours whether or not it was successful. 

Because Mars is so far away, NASA doesn’t control Ingenuity or Perseverance in real-time. Instead, it sends commands and allows the robots to execute them autonomously. Earlier this month, NASA had to postpone the helicopter’s historic first flight because of a software issue. A component known as the watchdog timer was running down and preventing the robot from transitioning into flight mode. As you probably remember, the fix worked, and Ingenuity has now taken to the Martian skies three times, but the watchdog timer has again gotten in the way. 

So, why is this happening again? NASA identified two possible solutions prior to the helicopter’s maiden flight: Transmit new software or rearrange some commands. It went with the second because it was simpler and not likely to cause other issues. The drawback, however, is that the watchdog timer would still kick in about 15 percent of the time. NASA rolled the dice three times without issue, but lady luck was not on Ingenuity’s side yesterday. The timer ran down, and the helicopter did not transition to flight mode. 

NASA transmitted new commands for the helicopter to take off at 10:46 AM EDT today (April 30th). As of now, we don’t know that the helicopter worked, but there’s an 85 percent chance that it did. NASA will get data back from the robot this afternoon, at which time we’ll know more. 

Ingenuity was a late addition to the Perseverance mission. This first-of-its-kind drone was built with off-the-shelf hardware such as a Snapdragon 801 smartphone system-on-a-chip. This allows it to be small and light enough to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere. It’s also much more powerful than Perseverance with its ancient, radiation-hardened processor. This kind of approach could make future robotic explorers more capable, but Ingenuity itself doesn’t have much time left. NASA does not expect it to survive even a single winter on Mars, and it plans to shift focus to Perseverance in the coming weeks. That robot should last years on Mars — the Curiosity rover, on which Perseverance is based, has been chugging along since 2012.

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