NASA’s incredible Mars helicopter has already flown 50 times on the red planet.
Initially rated for just five Mars sorties, Ingenuity landed its 50th Thursday, April 13, completing a flight of 146 seconds (opens in a new tab) which took him 18 meters above the surface of the red planet – higher than ever.
The 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) drone continues its epic journey to Mars, serving as a scout for NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and testing key technology that could help return samples from the Red Planet in years coming as part of the continued search for life on Mars.
“She blew out of the water all sorts of success metrics,” Theodore Tzanetos, Ingenuity team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, told Space.com last month. .
“It’s not just a statement about our approach to reliability, but it’s also a statement about the technicians who can put this thing together, isn’t it?” he said. Tzanetos added that the Ingenuity team “really did a miraculous job” that will help fly two sample return helicopters to Mars in a few years.
Related: Takeoff on Mars! Perseverance rover captures stunning video of Ingenuity helicopter flight
No rotorcraft had flown on a world beyond Earth before Ingenuity made its first tentative jump on April 19, 2021, just two months after landing on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater aboard Perseverance.
Ingenuity hovered 10 feet (3 m) above the ground for a 40-second flight, a milestone hailed by then-NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen as “a true Wright Brothers alien moment”.
Getting Ingenuity off the ground was a milestone in itself, as the Martian atmosphere is quite thin and no one can directly lift the helicopter from Earth; the delay between communications and reception is too long for real-time control. But the flight plan uploaded to Ingenuity went well, and more flights followed.
“The main objective is still relevant: to be a technology demonstrator,” Tzanetos said. But the drone now also serves as a scout for Perseverance, as the duo explore an ancient river delta at the bottom of Mars’ Jezero Crater. Additionally, the focus is on refinement operations, teamwork, and design decisions as NASA works to develop two Mars helicopters for its sample return effort to the Red Planet.
The sample-return mission’s dual drones, slated for launch in 2028, will serve as backups for Perseverance if the rover can’t transport the samples it’s collecting to a rocket lander on its own. even ; the rover cached sample tubes in a “depot” on Jezero’s soil, which small Ingenuity-type helicopters could retrieve and return to their mothership lander.
Related: NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover sample tubes look like Star Wars lightsabers
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To help mission planners prepare for the sample return effort and other future rotorcraft missions, Ingenuity continues to carefully push its limits. A new “mitigation capability” added in a recent software update allows the drone to choose its own landing area if it deems the default area too rocky or otherwise dangerous. Its navigation system has also been upgraded to include digital elevation maps to account for the hills it must navigate, miles away from its original flight paths.
Meanwhile, the team monitors how Ingenuity flies through the Martian atmosphere, how much dust slowly collects on its solar panels, how hot and cold its metal flexes, and other key metrics to make the next generation of helicopters all the stronger. When the two new helicopters, dubbed SRH (sample return helicopters), arrive, they will also include new features, such as a precise landing system that allows them to retrieve cached sample tubes.
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Ingenuity’s surprisingly long lifespan had ripple effects on the mission team, which was initially working on a “30-day sprint” on a limited flight plan, Tzanetos said. JPL engineers often work on multiple projects; after the five-flight main mission ended, some opted to stay with the Ingenuity team, while others went part-time or moved on.
“I think the team morale is great, especially now that we’ve grown significantly from that original technical team,” Tzanetos said, noting that JPL is making sure its team members can take holidays and vacations. (Something on the order of a dozen full-time equivalent positions support Ingenuity, though those numbers are spread among more people since not everyone works full-time on the project.)
It’s hard to predict how long Ingenuity will continue to fly, even if he remains in excellent health. The only potentially life-limiting consumables are the leg shocks designed to soften every landing, but the loss of these “won’t necessarily mean the end” as flight paths can be tailored to achieve soft landings , said Tzanetos.
Ingenuity’s lithium-ion batteries stay about five millivolts from where they need to be, the solar panels stay relatively dust-free thanks to the constant flight, and the team even has procedures in place to fly when the Mars seasons are changing and the atmosphere is thinning, like spinning the rotors a little faster than usual.
Tzanetos pointed out that the team is taking Ingenuity’s work one flight at a time. Nonetheless, Flight 50 likely sparked a team party. “We are going to come together and celebrate this milestone,” he said last month.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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