Even NASA’s helicopter on Mars has to wait for software updates


You know when you tap an app on your phone and instead of opening, it starts downloading an update? That’s kind of what’s happening with NASA’s helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity.

During a pre-flight rotor test on the Martian surface Friday, the computer onboard Ingenuity aborted operations when attempting to enter flight mode. To fix the issue, NASA will deploy a software update to the helicopter, the space agency announced Monday.

Now, like waiting to play a video game with a new patch, we wait.

Ingenuity sits on the Martian surface where it will perform its test flight. Perseverance captured this image from a safe distance.

Ingenuity sits on the Martian surface where it will perform its test flight. Perseverance captured this image from a safe distance.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA has identified the problem, so developing a software update should be a straightforward process. The agency said on Monday it’s modifying how Ingenuity’s two flight controllers boot up, which should help it transition into flight mode. 

Unlike a phone that’s probably within 100 feet of a WiFi router, Ingenuity communicates with Earth through the Perseverance rover — both are roughly 175 million miles away from Earth. It takes at least 15 minutes for information to travel at the speed of light from one planet to the other, so it’s not quite as quick as an update to the Twitter app.

Once the update is deployed and verified on Earth by NASA, tests can recommence and we should get a new estimate on when the flight tests will begin.

If everything goes well and Ingenuity becomes the first human-made object to fly on another planet, the helicopter is expected to fly up to four more times over 30 sols (Mars days).

Meanwhile, Perseverance will be sitting at a safe distance away, capturing the tech demo with its cameras and standing by in case another hotfix is needed. Luckily Ingenuity doesn’t need to be plugged in while it updates.



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