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The historic rotorcraft has recently negotiated some of the most dangerous terrain it has encountered on the Red Planet.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter completed its 50th flight to Mars. The first plane on another world reached half a century on April 13, traveling more than 1,057.09 feet (322.2 meters) in 145.7 seconds. The helicopter also reached a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters) before touching down near the half-mile-wide (800 meters wide) “Belva Crater”.
With Flight 50 in the mission log, the helicopter team plans to conduct another repositioning flight before exploring the “Fall River Pass” area of Jezero Crater.
“Just as the Wright Brothers continued their experiments long after that momentous day at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Ingenuity team continues to pursue and learn from the first aircraft’s flight operations on another world,” said Lori. Glaze, director of Planetary Science. Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Ingenuity landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 strapped to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and will soon mark the second anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19, 2021. Intended as a technology demonstration that would fly no more five times, the helicopter was intended to prove that powered, controlled flight on another planet was possible. But Ingenuity exceeded expectations and became a demonstration of operations.
Each time Ingenuity takes flight, it covers new ground and offers a perspective that no previous planetary mission could reach. The images from the helicopter not only demonstrated how the planes could serve as forward scouts for future planetary expeditions, they even proved useful for the Perseverance team.
By testing the limits of the helicopter, engineers collect flight data that can be used by engineers working on the design of possible future Martian helicopters. This includes the people who design the sample recovery helicopters offered by the Mars Sample Return campaign.
Since leaving the relatively flat confines of Jezero Crater ground on January 19, Ingenuity has flown 11 times, setting new speed and altitude records of 14.5 mph (6.5 meters per second) and 59 feet (18 meters) along the way.
Although the deep winter cold and regional dusty spells (which can prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the helicopter’s solar panel) have subsided, Ingenuity continues to deteriorate at night. As a result, the helicopter base station on the rover must search for the rotorcraft signal each morning when Ingenuity is expected to wake up. And when the helicopter flies, it now has to navigate rough and relatively uncharted terrain, landing in places that may be surrounded by danger.
“We’re not in Martian Kansas anymore,” said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity Operations Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We fly over the dried up remnants of an ancient river filled with sand dunes, rocks and boulders, and surrounded by hills that could welcome us for lunch. And although we recently updated the navigation software on board to help determine safe airfields, every flight is always a blank punch.”
In addition to dealing with more challenging terrain, Ingenuity will also be flying at a higher frequency in the coming days as the helicopter must remain within electronic earshot of the rover. Thanks to its AutoNav capability, Perseverance can travel hundreds of meters every day.
“Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to act as a communications conduit between itself and the mission controllers here at JPL,” Anderson said. “If the rover moves too far or disappears behind a hill, we could lose communications. The rover team has a job to do and a schedule to meet, so it’s imperative that Ingenuity follow through and lead whenever possible.”
Perseverance recently completed exploration for “Foel Drygarn”, a scientific target that may contain hydrated silica (which is of strong astrobiological interest). It is currently heading towards “Mont Julian”, which will offer a panoramic view of the nearby Belva crater.
feats of ingenuity
Built with numerous off-the-shelf components, such as smartphone processors and cameras, Ingenuity is now 23 terrestrial months and 45 flights past its expected lifespan. The rotorcraft flew for over 89 minutes and over 7.1 miles (11.6 kilometers).
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to complete five flights,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity Team Leader at JPL. “We have exceeded our planned cumulative flight time since the end of our technology demonstration by 1,250% and the planned distance flown by 2,214%.”
Exceeding expectations like this comes at a cost, however. With some helicopter components showing signs of wear and the terrain getting tougher, the Ingenuity team recognizes that every great mission must eventually come to an end. “We have come so far and we want to go further,” Tzanetos said. “But we knew from the very beginning that our time on Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now, that’s something no one cares about. can predict at the moment. What I can predict is that when it does, we’re going to have one hell of a party.”
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