Ingenuity, Nasa’s little Mars helicopter that could, will get to fly some more.
The small flying robot made history a week and a half ago as the first powered aircraft to take off on another world. On Friday, its fourth flight went farther and faster than ever before.
That wasn’t the only good news Nasa had about the helicopter on Friday.
In a news conference earlier in the day, the space agency announced that it was extending Ingenuity’s life by another 30 Martian days, bringing the mission into a new phase. Now that Ingenuity’s engineers have demonstrated that flying in the thin air of Mars is possible, they will explore how it can be used as an aerial scout for its larger robotic companion, the Perseverance rover.
“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase,” MiMi Aung, the project manager of Ingenuity, said during a news conference on Friday.
Previously, it had seemed as though the helicopter’s service life was quickly drawing to a close. The 30 Martian days that had been allocated for test flights of Ingenuity were to run out next week, and the plans were to then abandon it, never to fly again.
Ingenuity — just 1.6 feet tall, 4 pounds in weight — is an $85 million add-on to Perseverance, Nasa’s latest $2.7 billion rover, which landed on Mars in February. The helicopter is the first to fly like an airplane or a helicopter on another world.
The extension of Ingenuity’s flights reflects not only the success of the helicopter but also the desire of Perseverance’s scientists for the rover to explore its current surroundings, close to where it landed in February.
The rover is within a 28 mile-wide crater named Jezero that was once a lake. The scientists had expected they would want to immediately set off toward an ancient, dried-up river delta that is a promising place to look for signs of past Martian life.
“We landed in a fortuitous spot,” Kenneth Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology who serves as the project scientist for Perseverance, said in an email. The location, he said, “offered us a great opportunity to investigate some rocks we otherwise would not likely have seen or visited”.
Those rocks appear to be the oldest in the crater and the scientists want Perseverance to collect at least one sample, which will become part of a collection that a latter robotic mission would return to Earth. The age of the rocks would set an limit on how young Mars was when the lake first filled with water.
Dr Farley said he expected that Perseverance would spend several hundred Martian days — perhaps an Earth year or more — exploring this patch of Jezero lying within a mile of the rover’s current location.
Even though Ingenuity will not be left behind for now, the focus for the mission managers of Perseverance will shift to performing science observations. That means, for example, Perseverance will no longer take pictures and videos of the Ingenuity in the air.
“We did coddle the helicopter,” Jennifer Trosper, the deputy project manager for the rover, said during the news conference, “and we’re now we’re taking some of that away”.
On the fourth flight, Ingenuity used its camera to search for a new base for future flights. On its fifth flight, it will make a one-way trip to the new spot. From there, it will conduct perhaps one or two more flights in May.
Aung said the helicopter could perform reconnaissance to help plan where Perseverance will drive, take pictures of areas too rugged for the rover to drive to and produce stereo images.
New York Times News Service