NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, turns out to be quite a small explorer. The small rotorcraft just completed its ninth flight on the red planet and broke speed and distance records along the way.
Although the US space agency has not shared all the details of the latest flight, the team has confirmed that the lucky little chopper has tackled what the agency says is its “most nerve-wracking” flight to date.
The small helicopter was airborne at a record 166.4 seconds (2 minutes and 46.4 seconds) and flew at speeds of 5 m (16 feet) per second, according to mission officials.
Ingenuity in action
Baptized as ingenuity, the rotor vessel is on a technology demonstration mission aimed at proving that such a vessel could fly in the faint atmosphere of Mars.
The chopper made a trip to Mars attached to the bay on the Perseverance rover, and ever since landing on the red planet on February 1
In the first few flights, the helicopter essentially flew up and down and hovered slightly in place before attempting to cross distances. The increasingly complex series of practice flights served as a demonstration of what off-world rotorcraft can do.
Now that the craft is approaching double digits in terms of flights, raise the ante by adding some new tricks.
For its most recent expedition on July 5, Ingenuity flew over a piece of uneven and interesting terrain in the Seitah region of Mars. This area is of particular interest because it is characterized by sandy ripples that can prove treacherous to wheeled vehicles like the Perseverance Rover.
The unfriendly terrain in this region was also a concern for the helicopter because it would put Ingenuity’s navigation software to the test.
“It is safe to say that this was the most nerve-wracking flight since flight one,” Havard Fjaer Grip, chief pilot of ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Al Jazeera.
#MarsHelicopter pushes its red planet boundaries. 🚁
Rotorcraft completed its 9th and most challenging flight yet, flying for 166.4 seconds at a speed of 5 m / s. Take a look at this shot of Ingenuity’s shadow taken with its navigation camera. https://t.co/TNCdXWcKWE pic.twitter.com/zUIbrr7Qw9
– NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) July 5, 2021
This is because Ingenuity’s software was made to work over flat surfaces, not the sandy, sloping hills of the Seitah region. Unexpected terrain changes can cause problems finding the landing site because Ingenuity’s camera assumes that the ground is flat.
The helicopter buzzed around the region, snapping images of rock formations and other intriguing targets to aid in NASA’s quest for microbial life. The small helicopter flew its longest distance ever – 625 m (2,051 feet) and smashed the previous record of 160 m (525 feet) set in June.
Endurance touched Mars on February 18 with one main goal: to collect samples from Mars and mirror for signs of life. For this purpose, NASA officials chose the landing site, an ancient seabed, as the best place to look for biosignatures on Mars.
It spent the first 100 suns (Mars days) checking the systems and making sure everything was in order before jumping into the first science campaign focusing on studying the Seitah region.
According to Vivian Sun, a systems engineer in the Perseverance team at JPL, the Seitah region (and surrounding areas) are home to at least four different types of rocks that NASA would like to test for a future mission to return to Earth.
Rock formations in this section of the crater floor are of particular interest to scientists because they could have evolved from ancient lava flows or from sedimentation, meaning that there was once water there. And the presence of water has the potential for life.
However, some of the terrain there is particularly treacherous to the rover, so endurance will have to rely on its air partner, Ingenuity, to do some reconnaissance.
“Ingenuity is a very exciting asset to have,” Sun told Al Jazeera. “We use some of the images from the helicopter to scout new locations.”
“It’s very useful because we can use the image to analyze the rock formations that we think are interesting but can’t run up to,” she added.
Ingenuity does not have a number of scientific instruments as its counterpart, but it does have two different cameras – one color and one black and white – that scientists on Earth can use to study and analyze rock formations.
For this ninth flight, Perseverance drove south and stopped at the first of the four interesting cliff points. With the help of Ingenuity, the team was able to land on difficult terrain, take pictures of some cool cliffs and plan until the next stop on its tour of the southern crater floor.
The next study area, called CF-Fr (or crater-broken rock), is particularly intriguing, as the rough cliffs indicate that this area was once underwater.
“We do not know what stories the rocks here will tell us, but we are happy to find out,” Sun said.
The rover has also tested its built-in autopilot. Equipped with autonomous navigation software, the rover is able to drive itself instead of relying on commands from the ground.
It takes Perseverance about 200 suns to study and explore the southern region of the Jezero crater.
Because this area has at least four different types of rocks and evidence of ancient water, the team will begin collecting its first March specimens here. To do this, the team will pick up a few exercise examples before embarking on the right thing.
Once assembled, the test tubes are stored somewhere on Mars where a future sample return mission will collect them.
A new time of exploration
By flying over the Seitah region, Ingenuity was able to complete a task in less than three minutes that would have taken months for endurance to perform.
And that innovation is at the heart of the Ingenuity mission, which is also about demonstrating that motor vehicles can fly on Mars.
That type of technology is invaluable for robot tasks and represents a new era of exploration.
NASA has a successful history of landing rovers on Mars, which started with the Mars Pathfinder mission in the 1990s.
This mission with its Sojourner rover proved that wheeled vehicles could explore the surface of Mars and act as our eyes and ears on the red planet. Humans have been exploring Mars for decades now using these mobile scientists.
But ingenuity is something new, showing that scientists can send aircraft to help scout new and exciting targets as well as traverses that a rover could not.
“The plan for the future [for Ingenuity] is to really highlight the benefit of working with the rover, ”Jeff Delaune, a robot technologist on the JPL helicopter team, told Al Jazeera.
“Ingenuity has already completed its main mission,” he added. “We continue to push its boundaries, and everything now is just the cherry on top of the mission.”
Endurance and ingenuity are never too far apart, as the little chopper still needs the rover to communicate with Earth, but it helps guide endurance along the way.