NASA Mars Helicopter Is….Grounded?

Mars helicopter Ingenuity aborted latest flight attempt because of anomaly

NASA's Perseverance rover acquired this image of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter on the floor of Jezero Crater.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On September 15, the NASA Ingenuity Helicopter experienced a control servo anomaly grounding its September 18th sortie to fly a short hop above the surface. The servos in question saw a small oscillation when conducting the “servo wiggle” test, not something a helicopter wants to see when controlling a blade rotating 42 times per second.

NASA engineers scrubbed the sortie and replaced it with two more servo “wiggles” to flesh out any issues on 21 and 23 September, but were unsuccessful in repeating the behavior on either attempt. This seems like a random hardware malfunction and thus Ingenuity has been cleared for takeoff once again. However, due to the placement of Mars and Earth with respect to the Sun, Ingenuity will be further grounded until Mars exits its solar conjunction.

Coming from the world of small class Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), this random hardware malfunction is totally normal in a servo of this size and class. However, autonomous vehicles such as Ingenuity are also susceptible to cyber attacks as well as hardware issues. Personally, my small UAVs operate on an unencrypted 915 MHz radio with an open source commanding language (not my best plan from the cyber perspective, but my $500 is a little less than NASA’s $80M). Anyone at the park could take control of my UAV and Ingenuity, quite frankly, isn’t that different. Any random cyber attacker could hijack the signal to this off-world UAV just as the Deep Space Network was hacked in one of my previous articles. Something as simple as a control-loop gain tweak could tip this spacecraft (Mars-craft?) over on its side, ending its mission forever, and that’s with just one ill-sent command. Anyone with a chip on their shoulder for science could ruin this breakthrough, let alone a nation-state or cyber-terrorist.

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