Washington, United States:
It would only fly five times. And yet NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has completed 12 flights and isn’t ready to retire yet.
Given its stunning and unexpected success, the US space agency has extended Ingenuity’s mission indefinitely.
The tiny helicopter has become the regular companion of the rover Perseverance, whose core mission is to search for signs of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything works so well,” said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team. “On the surface, we’re doing better than we expected.”
Hundreds of people have contributed to the project, but only a dozen are currently in daily function.
Ravich joined the team five years ago.
“When I got the chance to work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as everyone else: ‘Is that possible?'”
His initial doubts were understandable: The air on Mars has a density equivalent to just one percent that of Earth’s atmosphere. By comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars would be like flying in the thin air, nearly 30 kilometers above Earth.
It wasn’t easy to get to Mars in the first place either. Ingenuity had to withstand the first shock of taking off from Earth, then landing on the red planet on February 18 after a seven-month journey through space strapped to the rover’s belly.
Once in its new environment, the tiny (four pounds or 1.8 kilograms) helicopter has had to survive the frigid Martian nights, drawing heat from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. And its flights are guided using an array of sensors, as the 15-minute delay in Earth’s communications makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity made its maiden flight and made history as the first powered craft to fly on another planet.
Exceeding all expectations, it has flown 11 more times.
“We have been able to handle bigger winds than we expected,” Ravich told AFP.
“I think with flight three we would have actually met all of our technical goals … (and) had all the information we hoped for,” said Ravich, who works for NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which operates the helicopter.
Since then, Ingenuity has flown up to 12 meters high and the last flight lasted two minutes and 49 seconds. In total, it covered a distance of 1.6 miles.
In May, Ingenuity flew its first one-way mission, landing outside the relatively flat “airfield” that had been carefully chosen as its original home.
But not everything has gone smoothly. The sixth flight brought some excitement.
After being dangerously unbalanced by a disturbance that affected photos taken during the flight to stabilize it, the small craft was able to recover. It landed safe and sound, and the problem was solved.
Ingenuity is now sent out to explore the road to Perseverance using his high-resolution color camera.
The goal is twofold: to plot a path for the rover that is safe, but also of scientific interest, especially from a geological point of view.
Ken Farley, head of Perseverance’s science team, explained how photos taken by Ingenuity during the 12th flight showed that a region called South Seitha was less interesting than scientists had hoped.
As a result, the rover may not be sent there.
After more than six months on the red planet, the tiny drone-like craft has gained a growing following on Earth, seen on coffee cups and T-shirts sold on the Internet.
What explains the long life?
“The environment has been very cooperative so far: the temperatures, the wind, the sun, the dust in the air… It’s still very cold, but it could have been a lot worse,” Ravich says.
In theory, the helicopter should be able to continue to operate for some time. But the approaching winter on Mars will be challenging.
NASA engineers, now armed with the data from Ingenuity’s flights, are already working on the next-generation successors.
“Something in the 20 to 30 kilograms (range) maybe, capable of carrying scientific payloads,” Ravich said.
Those future loads can only contain the rock samples collected by Perseverance.
NASA plans to retrieve those samples on a future mission — sometime in the 2030s.
(This story was not edited by NewsMadura staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)