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Mars helicopter kicks up ‘cool’ dust clouds – and unexpected science

A video of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter taking off and landing

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is the first spacecraft to successfully achieve controlled flight on another planet.Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS

Ingenuity, NASA̵

7;s pint-sized Mars helicopter, has kicked some surprising science up on its flights over the red planet. As they whiz through the Martian air, its knives sometimes touch a cloud of dust that envelops and moves along with the small helicopter.

In several videos of Ingenuity’s flights, planetary scientists have seen dust swirling under the helicopter’s rotors – even when Ingenuity flies as high as 5 meters above the Martian surface. This suggests that dust can be more easily lifted and transported in the thin Martian air than scientists suspected.

“It’s really cool,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at the end of its fourth flight and the dust kicked up by the helicopter's rotating rotors.

On its fourth flight on April 30, Ingenuity kicked up a large dust that traveled along with the helicopter as it flew, as shown in this video taken by Perseverance.Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS / SSI

Mars is a dusty planet, so it is not surprising that the helicopter kicks up dust during takeoff and landing, just as helicopters on Earth do when operating in the desert. Engineers designed Ingenuity to work with a lot of dust that blows around when it takes off and lands. But scientists are surprised at how the dust interacts with the drone in flight. By looking at how Ingenuity carries dust when it flies, scientists can better understand the dynamics of Mars’ thin atmosphere, where tornado-like ‘dust devils’ often form when the sun warms the air and the afternoon wind begins to blow.

“An unexpected atmospheric scientific experiment is coming out of this,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Ingenuity is what NASA calls a technology demonstration whose sole purpose is to show that flying on Mars is possible. So “all we can learn from it scientifically is the icing on the cake,” says Brian Jackson, a physicist at Boise State University in Idaho who studies Martian dust.

Bizarre clouds of dust

Space scientists and amateur image processors have analyzed images and videos of the helicopter that NASA has published online.

The agency’s Perseverance rover carried ingenuity to the surface of Mars in February. Its job is to roll around the Jezero crater and explore the cliffs that were once part of an ancient lake, looking for signs of past lives. In April, Ingenuity became the first machine to achieve motor flight on another planet. It has so far made seven flights.

A Mars dust devil that is about 20 miles high

Dust devils like this one, 20 kilometers high and captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, regularly whirl over the Martian surface.Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

On the first two flights, Ingenuity kicked up quite a bit of dust as it rose 3 to 5 feet above the surface, but it did not travel far from the starting point and the dust cloud phenomenon was not pronounced. On its third flight, the helicopter rose 5 meters and then flew north from the starting point, kicking a cloud up from several bright spots, it flew over the surface of Mars. These spots can be small holes where dust has accumulated in the landscape of Mars, Lemmon says. “There’s a lot more dust coming up at that moment,” when the helicopter flies over them, he says.

Ingenuity’s knives rotate at more than 2,400 rpm – a staggering speed needed for the helicopter to take off in the Martian atmosphere, which is only 1% of its density.

It was Ingenuity’s fourth flight on April 30 that really fascinated scientists. A video, recorded of endurance from a nearby vantage point, shows the helicopter rising, disappearing from viewpoint and then reappearing while being surrounded by a huge cloud of dust after a 133-meter flight.

The video confirms that Ingenuity flew along with the wind of 3.5 meters per. Second, says Håvard Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The dust was carried under us,” he says.

Lemmon plans to compare tracks on the surface of Mars left by natural dust devils with those where the helicopter kicked up the most dust. It will help scientists better understand how winds blowing over Mars can lift dust and turn it into dust bastards. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that scientists have had a hard time explaining how so much dust comes up, Jackson says. “We need to know how the first step in the process works,” he says.

Ingenuity ran into some trouble on its sixth flight on May 22; it started to wobble due to a fault in the navigation system but managed to land safely. On its seventh flight on June 8, it flew 106 meters without any problems.

The helicopter has had great success demonstrating flight in other worlds, Grip says. In the future, larger helicopters could travel long distances and mirror areas where vehicles with wheels could not travel. “It’s just so clear that this is definitely a way that can be used to explore Mars,” he says.

Ingenuity will now tag along as endurance begins to roll south from the landing site. The helicopter is likely to make additional flights every two weeks from now until the end of August, with operations expected to be nearing completion.

Endurance has explored the rocks that make up Jezero Crater’s ancient seabed. Team researchers are in the process of deciding where to drill to collect their first geological sample – either from the fractured rock that forms the crater floor, or from a dune-laden region nearby. It will be the first in a collection of stone cores destined for the retrieval of future spacecraft that will fly the material back to Earth – in the first test ride ever from Mars.

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