NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet ...

Innovation

NASA reveals what’s next for the Mars helicopter Ingenuity

NASA

Ingenuity has a new lease on life.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity will fly as long as its propellers can lift it, NASA scientists announced Friday. What was once a 30-day mission — which officially began on Friday — is now open to continuing for as long as it can. Its first day was spent doing reconnaissance flights for Perseverance, the rover that landed on the red planet in February carrying the mini helicopter in tow.

“We will be celebrating each day that ingenuity survives and operates beyond the original window,” Mimi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, told reporters.

Look closely and you’ll see the tiny helicopter in the background. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Laurie Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, says that initially, the mission had three goals:

  1. Demonstrate on Earth that it was possible to fly on thin air of Mars
  2. Perform the actual flight
  3. Not just fly, but return critical data to Earth

With all those fulfilled, Ingenuity will turn more into a science craft. However, it has limited instrumentation — just a camera, really. But that will allow the craft to do a few things, including:

  • Make aerial topography maps of Mars in granular detail Mars orbiters could only dream of
  • Plot new courses for the Perseverance rover to take in the process
  • Take series of images that could be stitched into aerial panoramas

The new mission is being given an additional 30 days, much like the first 30 for the tech demonstration phase. After one or two flights in that additional month, the NASA team will assess the health of the craft and decide if it will be given another extended mission.

READ MORE PERSEVERANCE ROVER NEWS FROM INVERSE

But Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance rover deputy project manager at JPL, says that “Ingenuity will only fly every few weeks instead of every few sols.”

For the mission team, it’s now one day — or even one week — at a time.

“We gauge as we go,” Aung says. “We really do expect a finite life.”

Bob Balaran, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL, says that the helicopter’s landing gear can handle about 100 flights. The craft could also be done in by the extreme cold of Mars, which could cause any moving parts of the helicopter to snap.

What’s next for the Ingenuity helicopter

In its new life phase, the helicopter may get a kilometer or slightly more from the rover, which should give enough distance to stay in touch. The rover will begin its mission of sampling the soil of Mars, including targeting interesting places in its landing site. The rover will no longer image the helicopter flights.

“We don’t have to be talking every day like we have been,” Aung says.

As Ingenuity will be going further afield, and looking for new landing sites, there’s always the chance that it could perform a bad landing — something the team is prepared for. There’s no way for the helicopter to set itself upright, nor for the rover to prop it back in place, meaning that could spell the end of the mission. The helicopter will be pushing itself toward more treacherous terrain “that will naturally push the limits,” according to Aung, including places inaccessible to the rover.

The team, in the press conference, indicated that they might like future missions to have better imaging than the 13-megapixel camera on the helicopter (not much better than your cell phone) to create high-quality stereo imaging.

According to Aung, the helicopter has exceeded expectations, so this extended mission could be a game-changer for the mission — and further missions down the line.

“Ingenuity loves Mars,” Aung says. “We’ve been shocked … you’ve seen the flights, and i almost feel the freedom it feels.”

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