NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has completed 12 successful flights to the surface of Mars, and due to its surprising and unexpected success, the US Space Agency has extended its stay there indefinitely.
The small helicopter has become a regular travel companion for the Perseverance rover, whose primary mission is to search for signs of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything is going well,” said Josh Ravich, head of the mechanical engineering team, to Ingenuity. “We’re doing a better job on the roof than we expected.”
Hundreds of people have contributed to the project, although only about a dozen people currently hold daily roles.
Ravish’s initial suspicions were understandable: the density of air on Mars is only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere. For comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars is like flying through the air 20 miles (30 km) above Earth.
Getting to Mars wasn’t easy in the first place. Ingenuity had to withstand the initial shock of taking off from Earth, then landing on February 18 on the Red Planet after a seven-month journey through space.
The small helicopter also had to survive the icy cold of Mars nights, drawing warmth from solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. It directs its flights using an array of sensors, since a 15-minute delay in communications from the ground makes real-time routing impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity made its maiden flight, making history as the first robotic vehicle to fly on another planet. Exceeding all expectations, it flew 11 more times.
“We were really able to handle stronger winds than we expected,” Ravic told AFP.
Since then, Ingenuity has flown at an altitude of 39 feet (12 metres), and its last flight took two minutes and 49 seconds.
In May, the helicopter flew its first one-way mission, landing outside the relatively flat “airport” that had been carefully chosen as its first stop.
But not everything went smoothly, as her sixth flight brought some excitement.
After suffering a serious loss of balance due to a malfunction that affected the images taken in flight to help it stabilize, the small craft was able to recover, landed safely and soundly, and the problem was resolved.
Now, Ingenuity is sent to explore the way for Perseverance, using the high-resolution color camera.
Ken Farley, who heads the science team at Perseverance, explained how images taken by the helicopter during its twelfth flight showed that the area called South Seitha was less interested than scientists had hoped.
As a result, the rover may not be sent there.
What explains longevity?
“The environment has been very cooperative so far: temperatures, wind, sun, dust in the air, it’s still very cold, and much worse can be expected as the Martian winter is going to be tough,” Ravic said.
In theory, the helicopter should be able to continue operating for some time.
Source: Science Alert