NASA has extended Mars operations of the Ingenuity helicopter through September, supporting the Perseverance rover’s new science campaign in the ancient Jezero Crater river delta.
Along the way, the first controlled-flight aircraft deployed to another world will continue to test its own capabilities to support the design of future Mars air vehicles.
The announcement comes on the heels of the 21st helicopter’s successful flight, the first of at least three needed for the helicopter to cross the northwestern part of a region known as “Séítah” and reach its next staging area.
“Less than a year ago, we didn’t even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on Mars was possible,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Now, we’re looking forward to Ingenuity’s participation in Perseverance’s second science campaign. Such a mindset transformation in such a short period is simply incredible and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration.”
Ingenuity’s new area of operations is completely different from the modest and relatively flat terrain it has been flying over since its first flight last April. Several kilometers wide and formed by an ancient river, the fan-shaped delta rises more than 40 meters above the crater floor. Filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, jutting boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stop a rover in its tracks (or capsize a helicopter on landing), the delta promises to hold numerous geological revelations, perhaps even the evidence needed to determine that microscopic life once existed on Mars billions of years ago.
Upon reaching the delta, Ingenuity’s first orders will be to help determine which of the two dry river channels Perseverance should take when it’s time to climb to the top of the delta. Along with route assistance, the data provided by the helicopter will help the Perseverance team assess potential science targets. Ingenuity can even be used to image geologic features too far away (or outside the rover’s traversable zone), or perhaps explore landing zones and cache sites for the Mars Sample Return program.
“The Jezero River Delta campaign will be the biggest challenge facing the Ingenuity team since the first flight to Mars,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “To improve our chances of success, we have increased the size of our team and are upgrading our flight software to improve operational flexibility and flight safety.”
will fly higher
Several of these updates have led to reduced in-flight navigation errors, increasing the safety of both flight and landing. A recent software change already in the helicopter frees Ingenuity from its previously programmed maximum altitude of 15 meters. Altitude gains could result in incremental increases in both airspeed and range. A second upgrade allows Ingenuity to change airspeed while flying. Another allows you to better understand and adapt to changes in terrain texture during flight. Future software updates may include the addition of terrain elevation maps in the navigation filter and an ability to avoid landing hazards.
Before the aerial reconnaissance of the delta can begin, Ingenuity must complete her journey to the area. Scheduled for no earlier than March 19, Ingenuity’s next flight will be a complex journey, some 350 meters long, that includes a sharp curve in its course to avoid a large hill. After that, the team will determine if two or three more flights will be required to complete the Séítah northwest crossing.
The first experimental flight over another world took place on April 19, 2021 and lasted 39.1 seconds. After four more flights, six more minutes in the air, and a total distance of 499 meters, NASA transitioned Ingenuity into an operations demonstration phase, testing its ability to provide an aerial dimension to the Perseverance mission. With the completion of Flight 21, the helicopter has logged more than 38 minutes in the air and has traveled 4.64 kilometers.