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Ingenuity Mars helicopter “performing beyond expectation”

Posted on 03 May 2021 and read 404 times
Ingenuity Mars helicopter “performing beyond expectation”Perseverance rover ‘selfie’ with the Ingenuity helicopter taken on 16 April. Picture courtesy of NASA

Having proven that powered, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet, NASA’s Ingenuity experiment has been assigned a new mission. It will soon embark on a new demonstration phase, exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other planets.

This new mission will begin after the helicopter completes its next two flights. The decision to add an operations demonstration is a result of the Perseverance rover being ahead of schedule with the testing of all vehicle systems since its arrival on Mars on 18 February, and its science team choosing a nearby patch of crater bed for its first detailed exploration.

With the Mars helicopter’s energy, telecommunications, and in-flight navigation systems performing beyond expectation, an opportunity arose to allow it to continue exploring its capabilities with an operations demonstration, without significantly impacting rover scheduling.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success.

“Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritising and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”
The operations demonstration will begin in about two weeks with the helicopter’s sixth flight. Until then, Ingenuity will be in a transitional phase that includes its fourth and fifth missions.

Flight four will send the rotorcraft about 436ft south to collect aerial imagery of a potential new landing zone before returning to land at Wright Brothers Field, the name for the Martian airfield on which Ingenuity’s first flight took place. This 873ft roundtrip effort would surpass the range, speed, and duration marks achieved on the third flight.

The fifth flight will send Ingenuity on a one-way mission, landing at the new site. If Ingenuity remains healthy after those flights, the next phase will begin.

New flight envelope

Ingenuity’s transition from conducting a technology demonstration to an operations demonstration brings with it a new flight envelope. Along with those one-way flights, there will be more precision manoeuvring, greater use of its aerial-observation capabilities, and more risk overall.

The change also means Ingenuity will require less support from the Perseverance rover team, which is looking ahead for targets to take rock and sediment samples in search of ancient microscopic life. On 26 April – the mission’s 66th sol, or Martian day – Perseverance drove 33ft with the goal to identify targets.

Ken Farley, project scientist for the Perseverance rover, said: “With the short drive, we have already begun our move south toward a location the science team believes is worthy of investigation and our first sampling.

“We will spend the next couple of hundred sols executing our first science campaign looking for interesting rock outcrop along this 2km patch of crater floor before likely heading north and then west toward Jezero Crater’s fossil river delta.”

With short drives expected for Perseverance in the near term, Ingenuity may execute flights that land near the rover’s current location or its next anticipated parking spot. The helicopter can use these opportunities to perform aerial observations of rover science targets, potential rover routes, and inaccessible features while also capturing stereo images for digital elevation maps.

The lessons learned from these efforts will provide significant benefit to future mission planners. These scouting flights are a bonus and not a requirement for Perseverance to complete its science mission.

The cadence of flights during Ingenuity’s operations demonstration phase will slow from once every few days to about once every two or three weeks, and they will be scheduled to avoid interfering with Perseverance’s science operations.

The team will assess flight operations after 30 sols and will complete flight operations no later than the end of August. That timing will allow the rover team time to wrap up its planned science activities and prepare for solar conjunction – the period in mid-October when Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the Sun, blocking communications.

MiMi Aung, project manager of Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said: “We have so appreciated the support provided by the Perseverance rover team during our technology demonstration phase.

“Now we have a chance to pay it forward, demonstrating for future robotic and even crewed missions the benefits of having a partner nearby that can provide a different perspective – one from the sky. We are going to take this opportunity and ‘fly with it’.”