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NASA's Mars helicopter experiences 'anomaly,' delaying 14th flight

Ingenuity will wait out the quiet period during the Mars solar conjunction before it takes another shot at flying.

NASA's experimental Ingenuity helicopter prior to its first flight on Mars.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA's overachieving Mars helicopter Ingenuity is taking a short break before it attempts its next flight. The rotorcraft had been scheduled for a brief hovering exercise on Sept. 18. "It turned out to be an uneventful flight, because Ingenuity decided to not take off," said Jaakko Karras, deputy operations lead, in a status update this week.

Ingenuity's failure to fly was a good thing. The chopper detected an anomaly in two flight-control servo motors while it was running a routine preflight check of its systems. 

The flight cancellation means Ingenuity won't try to take off again until sometime past mid-October. The reason for the extended delay is Mars solar conjunction, a time when Earth and Mars are opposite each other with the sun in between. That can cause communications problems between Earth and our robotic explorers at and around the red planet. NASA will pause the sending of commands between Oct. 2 and Oct. 16. 

Ingenuity is facing a challenging time on Mars as the seasons change, and it needs to make some adjustments in how it flies, thanks to a decrease in atmospheric density. The rotorcraft successfully completed a high-speed spin test to see if it'll be able to compensate for the changes, and that test went just fine. The next step was to try a hover, which was when the anomaly occurred.

The Ingenuity team is doing some troubleshooting. Karras suggested that moving parts might be showing some signs of wear since the rotorcraft has flown a lot more times than originally planned, but there are various possible explanations for the anomaly.

Ingenuity already overcame a technical glitch and has thrived in the challenging conditions on Mars. Said Karras, "We have a number of tools available for working through the anomaly and we're optimistic that we'll get past it and back to flying again soon."