The Séítah region on Mars, filled with rocks and dunes, was too treacherous for NASA’s endurance rover to run over. So Ingenuity, the small helicopter that accompanied the rover, flew over the area on Monday, snapping some photos of a key point on the other side. In less than three minutes, Ingenuity Endurance saved the months it would have had to drive to take its own photos.
The fast Monday morning jump over Séítah was Ingenuity’s ninth flight on Mars so far, but it marked the first time the helicopter lent a helping hand to Endurance in its hunt for ancient signs of life at the red planet̵
But on Monday, NASA engineers pushed Ingenuity’s boundaries further than ever. In 166 seconds, Ingenuity flew about 11 km / h for almost half a mile or 2,050 feet – a far greater distance than the most recent flight in June, which was 525 feet. The Copter lurked around different corners of the Séítah, snapping images of its boundaries, where intersections between different rock formations – called contacts – in geology lingo – create some of the most scientifically intriguing targets in Perseverance’s hunt for fossilized microbial life.
“This was a big leap – large jump – in terms of what we’ve done before. We walked between places that were 620, 625 meters apart, which is huge compared to what we have done before, ”said ingenuity chief pilot Harvard Grip in an interview. Ingenuity photos expected in the coming days after crashing into a delayed Mars-to-Earth data pipeline will help engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory decide whether to send endurance on a road to collect rock samples in the contact region in question.
The mission is “designed to be high risk, high reward, so that means it makes sense for us to take those additional risks because of the potential payout,” Grip said.
Ingenuity, originally designed to fly on short trips from point A to B, dipped into one of Séítah’s eroded craters, slowed down, and then ascended slopes for the first time while dancing along a zigzag path. Its autonomous navigation algorithms were written to predict flying over flat terrain only, so engineers adapt the code and convince the helicopter that Séítah’s bumps were flat. It required several simulations in preparation for the flight, mainly to predict whether the helicopter could potentially turn out of control under its new flight instructions. No accidents occurred and Ingenuity successfully reached the targeted rock formation on the other side of the Séítah.
“This was the first time we really said, ‘Let’s go big, and let’s take a risk and get over Séítah,’ which we know is an extremely challenging terrain for a rover to cross,” said Ken Williford, deputy project researcher for Endurance mission, said in an interview.
Sending a small drone over a potentially dangerous field of thick sand to mirror cool Mars rocks is a huge time saver for the Endurance Team. “When scientists can get these images of that contact early, we can start the science process much earlier than we otherwise would, and start making observations and interpretations and understanding what these rocks are,” Williford says.
The rover has its own cameras, primarily designed to analyze nearby cliffs and landscapes of Mars. And sensors aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite about 155 miles above Mars’ surface, give the endurance team images of distant rock targets, but lack the detailed details that a helicopter like Ingenuity can provide.
The helicopter was retired after the first five flight demonstrations to let the endurance team focus on its own work. But after Ingenuity reached its fourth flight in late April, engineers decided to expand the vessel’s mission to Mars to demonstrate how helicopters could help future rovers lead science. Some of Ingenuity’s midflight photos taken during test flights were convenient for endurance scientists, but Monday’s flight marked for the first time that it started with a single mission to help the rovers’ science team.
NASA management approved Ingenuity’s mission expansion on the condition that it does not interfere with or disrupt Perseverance’s nuclear mission, Williford said. A small “interface” team that combines engineers from endurance and ingenuity that acts as the operational glue between the two missions has since been expanded to include endurance researchers, as ingenuity proves to be more scientifically useful than expected. For most NASA missions, these interface teams sometimes trigger debate and disagreement as avid scientists negotiate technical risks with more risk-averse spacecraft engineers. But the Ingenuity-Perseverance team is surprisingly smooth, Williford says.
“This has been a very unique interaction where I can go in there and say, ‘Do you know what would be so great? Is that if we could get over here, ‘and then hear Bob Balaram [Ingenuity’s chief engineer] say, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ and really push his team to go further, ”said Williford, who also works as director of JPL’s Astrobiogeochemistry Laboratory. “It’s been one of the funniest things I’ve ever done, really. When I work with these engineers and a few other scientists to plan these flights, I feel like a 12-year-old kid again, honestly. ”