NASA extends Mars helicopter mission Ingenuity

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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter acquired this image in the northwest part of a region known as “Séítah” using its high-resolution color camera during its 20th flight on February 25, 2022. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has extended flight operations of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity until September. In the coming months, the first aircraft in history to operate from the surface of another world will support the Perseverance rover’s next scientific campaign, which will explore the ancient river delta of Jezero Crater. Along the way, it will continue to test its own capabilities to support the design of future Martian aerial vehicles.

The announcement comes after the rotorcraft’s 21st successful flight, the first of at least three flights required for the helicopter to cross the northwestern part of a region called “Séítah” and reach its next staging area.

“Less than a year ago, we didn’t even know if powered, controlled aircraft flight on Mars was possible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Now we are excited about Ingenuity’s participation in Perseverance’s second science campaign. Such a transformation of mindset in such a short time is nothing short of amazing, and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration. »

Ingenuity’s new area of ​​operations is entirely different from the modest, relatively flat terrain it has flown over since its first flight last April. Miles wide and formed by an ancient river, the fan-shaped delta rises more than 40 meters above the crater floor. Filled with jagged cliffs, sloping surfaces, protruding boulders, and pockets of sand that could stop a rover in its tracks (or flip a landing helicopter), the delta promises plenty of geological revelations — maybe even the evidence needed to determine that microscopic life existed on Mars billions of years ago.

Once he reaches the delta, Ingenuity’s first task will be to help determine which of the two dry river channels Perseverance will take when it comes to ascending to the top of the delta. In addition to aiding routing, the data provided by the helicopter will help the Perseverance team assess potential scientific targets. One can even call on its ingenuity to obtain images of geological features that are too far away (or outside the traversable zone of the rover), or perhaps to identify landing zones and cache sites for the return program. samples from Mars.

“The Jezero River Delta campaign will be the biggest challenge Team Ingenuity has faced since its first flight to Mars,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team leader at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the United States. NASA, Southern California. “To increase our chances of success, we have increased the size of our team and are making upgrades to our flight software aimed at improving operational flexibility and flight safety. »

Higher flights

Many of these upgrades have reduced in-flight navigation errors, increasing flight and landing safety. A recent modification to the software already in place on the rotorcraft releases the Ingenuity from its previously programmed maximum altitude of 15 meters (50 feet). Altitude gains could result in incremental increases in airspeed and range. A second upgrade allows Ingenuity to alter airspeed as it flies. Another upgrade allows it to better understand and adapt to changes in terrain texture during flight. Future software upgrades may include the addition of terrain elevation maps in the navigation filter and a landing hazard avoidance capability.

Before aerial reconnaissance of the delta can begin, Ingenuity must complete its journey through the area. Scheduled no earlier than March 19, Ingenuity’s next flight will be a complex journey, approximately 350 meters in length, which will include a sharp turn to avoid a large hill. After that, the team will determine if two or three more flights will be needed to complete the northwest crossing of Séítah.

This annotated image illustrates the multiple flights — and two different routes — that NASA’s Ingenuity Martian helicopter could make on its journey to the Jezero Crater Delta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/USGS

The first experimental flight to 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 moved Ingenuity to the operational demonstration phase, in order to test its ability to bring an aerial dimension to the Perseverance mission. At the end of Flight 21, the rotorcraft spent more than 38 minutes in the air and traveled 4.64 kilometers. As ingenuity pushes into uncharted territory, these numbers will inevitably rise, and previous flight records will more than likely fall.

“This next flight will be my 22nd entry in our logbook,” said Ingenuity chief pilot Havard Grip of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I remember thinking, when it all started, that we would be lucky to have three starters and immensely lucky to have five. Now, at the rate we’re going, I’m going to need a second book”.

Translation of Phys.org by Astro Univers

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