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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is proving so successful that they will incorporate it to Perseverance’s operations. Because they HAVE to!

It is only going to be a demonstration”, they said. “Even one successful lift-off, flight and landing, will be a huge success”, they said. And in a perfect world, NASA would like to do a total of five flights, lasting 90 seconds. Well it looks like NASA’s perfect world is here! It has flown four times thus far, and reports being in perfectly good health. And this perfect-world success of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is giving NASA some operations-related issues… in a good way.

Mars Helicopter – From Demonstration To Operations!

Photo: NASA/JPL

There were a lot of uncertainties in how Ingenuity would work on Mars. NASA and JPL (that built the helicopter) simulated the Martian atmosphere on Earth in extensive testing. But flight is unpredictable – plus, there were things that they couldn’t really test for, like wind. And of course the operations that the Mars helicopter has to perform are completely autonomous. NASA tell it how and where to fly, and Ingenuity has to figure out how to do it.

 

Raising Its Game

Initially, Ingenuity’s speed was 2 meters/sec. For its fourth flight, NASA bumped this up to 3.5 m/sec. That’s an increase from 7.2km/h (4.5mph) to 12.6km/h (7.8mph). Not impressed? Well, the little Mars helicopter’s operations are taking place in atmospheric pressure equating to 100,000-105,000 feet MSL, on Earth!

Mars Helicopter – From Demonstration To Operations!

Ingenuity takes an aerial photo capturing Perseverance (top left). Photo: NASA/JPL

Instead of a 90 seconds, the fourth flight lasted 117 secs. In combination with the higher speed, this means Ingenuity has more range. And on this flight, the Mars helicopter was scouting for new possible landing sites, to continue its operations. This wasn’t part of NASA’s initial planning. However, Ingenuity’s success means that Perseverance’s exploration is having to wait! So, NASA now plans to fix this welcome problem, by giving the Ingenuity helicopter a promotion.

The whole point of having a helicopter on Mars alongside a ground rover vehicle, is to aid in operations. A helicopter can scout for future areas of interest, it can identify potential danger areas and see behind obstacles. It is a Martian scout plane. So, Ingenuity is a feasibility exercise, a technology demonstration for this.

Mars Helicopter – From Demonstration To Operations!

Perseverance selfie with Ingenuity. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity has worked so well, for so long, that NASA has decided that there is little point in Perseverance staying put, baby-sitting it. Therefore the Mars helicopter will move from technology demonstrator, to a new operations demonstration phase. It will shift from showing what it can do, to getting a job! The Perseverance rover will head south, where it can sample interesting patches of Martian ground. Ingenuity flew in the same direction to find potential landing spots. And on its next flight it will go to one of these spots and land, keeping in contact with the rover.

 

The Operations Of The Mars Helicopter

As part of its new operations’ role, the helicopter will use its colour camera to take stereoscopic images of Mars, for elevation mapping purposes. The NASA team that is picking science targets for the rover, will use the Ingenuity helicopter to get a closer look at them. These missions could help shape the future work for the rover.

Ingenuity shortly before detatching itself from Perseverance. Photo: NASA

So instead of slowing down the rover’s operations, holding up its resources, the Mars helicopter will serve it. However, the frequency of the flights will now go down. And obviously the flight schedule will depend on Perseverance’s progress. The timing of the flights will also have to avoid hindering other scientific activities.

MiMi Aung, project manager of Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said:

We have so appreciated the support provided by the Perseverance rover team during our technology demonstration phase. Now we have a chance to pay it forward, demonstrating for future robotic and even crewed missions the benefits of having a partner nearby that can provide a different perspective – one from the sky. We are going to take this opportunity and run with it – and fly with it.

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