It’s the same on Mars as it is here – just as you get used to your job, the bosses go and change things up.
At least that’s our reading about the situation at the Jezero crater, where the Mars Ingenuity helicopter has just had its mission upgraded and expanded. At a news conference Friday morning, the Ingenuity flight team announced with members of the Perseverance team and some NASA brass that Ingenuity had earned 30 hours of extra flight time and would be transitioned from just a “technology demonstrator” to an “operation demonstration” phase. They also announced Ingenuity’s fourth flight, which was successfully completed today and covers 266 meters and remains in the air for 1
There are two main drivers for the expansion of the mission. The first is that Ingenuity has achieved all the technical goals set for it in terms of proving that a helicopter can fly in the Martian atmosphere and operate autonomously. In doing so, Ingenuity has compiled a large dataset that will inform the design of future UAVs for planetary exploration. But that alone would not have been enough to justify the extension of the mission. Ingenuity was always an addition, designed to take as few resources as possible from the primary mission of endurance, which is to gather samples in search of ancient life on Mars. The plan was for the rover to live near Ingenuity to support aircraft operations in 30 suns and then head out to the more interesting areas of the Jezero crater to explore and collect samples.
But as it turns out, the area around Ingenuity’s operational area, known as Wright Brothers Field, is far more interesting to planetary scientists than originally expected, as revealed by Perseverance’s instruments. This allows the rover to be put in the moment, get some sampling and science down and still support Ingenuity’s now expanded mission.
We find this an exciting development, and we look forward to the data and images that come from the now overlapping tasks within ingenuity and perseverance. To learn more about these amazing spacecraft, check out our deep dives on the rover itself and its companion helicopter.