If you were planning to tune in on Sunday for NASA’s maiden voyage through the skies of Mars, don’t bother. It’s not happening.
The first flight of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter is now set for “no earlier than April 14,” the U.S. space agency confirmed on Saturday. Everything’s fine in general, NASA is still communicating with the temporarily grounded aircraft. But there’s been a technical hiccup that needs to be resolved.
“During a high-speed spin test of the rotors on Friday, the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a ‘watchdog’ timer expiration,” NASA’s statement reads. “This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode. The helicopter is safe and healthy and communicated its full telemetry set to Earth.”
The watchdog timer is there to oversee the processes that allow researchers on Earth to issue commands to the Ingenuity. It goes off when it detects some kind of issue. The nature of the issue that sprung up in this case isn’t clear in NASA’s statement, though the agency notes that “the helicopter team is reviewing telemetry to diagnose and understand the issue.”
That’s why the new liftoff date is a rather wishy-washy “no earlier than April 14.” It means that the earliest NASA expects this issue to be comfortably resolved is Wednesday, but it could also take longer if the problem that grounded Ingenuity is more involved.
Troubleshooting technical troubles at a distance of more than 172 million miles isn’t exactly easy. That’s part of why the task of sending the Ingenuity into Mars’ skies is so challenging. The purpose of this experiment to begin with is to show that a new form of space exploration is possible.
“It represents opening up a new avenue of space exploration,” Ingenuity mechanical lead Josh Ravich told Mashable in a recent interview. “It opens a lot of possibilities not just for Mars, but for any body with an atmosphere.” There are hopes for a similar, drone-led mission to one day unfold on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan.
With Mars being so far away and Ingenuity being the only option on the ground for testing atmospheric flight beyond the bounds of Earth, it’s all the more important to make sure everything is working perfectly. So this delay to April 14, while it may be disappointing for space fans everywhere, is definitely for the best.
Stay tuned for updates on NASA’s Ingenuity launch as the technical issues are worked out and a new plan comes together. You can keep up with the latest developments on Twitter by following NASA’s accounts for the Mars Perseverance Rover (which delivered Ingenuity to the planet) and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the team tasked with managing many of NASA’s robotic missions.