This Tuesday (19), it’s been a year since NASA’s Creativity Helicopter made its first flight on Mars. More: It was the first time an airplane had flown into a world beyond Earth.
Just over two months after landing at Jezero Crater with its mission companion, the Persevering Rover, the 1.8kg drone made its first foray into the Martian sky, flying about 3m above the surface of a site called Wright Brothers Field.
By achieving the feat, which took 39 seconds, Ingenuity showed that atmospheric exploration on Mars is possible, even though the planet has such a dense atmosphere, with roughly 1% of the normal atmospheric pressure on Earth.
This was the main objective of the small helicopter’s technology demonstration mission, which required five pilot flights over 30 suns (also called Mars days, which take about 24 hours and 40 minutes).
Ingenious helicopter has already had 25 flights on Mars
Now, a year later, the small helicopter already has 25 flights under its belt and is still going strong, with its mission extended again, this time until September 2022 at the earliest.
“It still feels surreal,” said Ingenuity chief engineer Jaakko Karras, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in an interview with Space.com. “I think we all said we’d consider ourselves lucky if we could catch one flight and land safely, and it would be very lucky if we could make it to the end of the five-flight 30-sun technology initial demo window.”
It celebrates the fact that the tiny helicopter has already exceeded (and far) the initial targets. “To be here now, after a full year on Earth, having done 25 flights, and more than 45 minutes in the Martian sky, on all kinds of different terrains that we never planned for, never designed – it’s amazing.”
On its 25th flight, which took place on April 8, Ingenuity covered 704 meters of ground and reached a top speed of 19.8 km/h – both record feats for a helicopter, which also performed reconnaissance roles: Its aerial observations help the Perseverance team plan the safest routes The efficacy of the rover and the identification of potential scientific goals.
“This has been another great aspect of the extended phase of operations for us, and it really is doing this scouting role, which has always been kind of a guiding vision and ambition for this technology,” Krass said. “We never expected that we would be able to do this so brilliantly. We thought we would be a demo and that would be it.”
According to Krass, the drone’s longevity and adaptability is a testament to its robust engineering and the ingenuity of its processors. “The helicopter’s navigation software, for example, is designed to handle relatively flat terrain, which is relatively risk-free. However, it is robust and flexible enough to allow intelligence to fly over some rugged landscapes, such as the dune-strewn Sittah region of Jezero.” .
The helicopter is still in good health, so it should continue to fly on Mars, Krass said, helping the persistent rover explore the ancient river delta once located within Jezero.
Ingenuity’s work also lays the groundwork for even greater exploits on Mars in the future. According to JPL engineers, there are plans for larger, more capable successors: drones that could autonomously explore Mars. All connections from the creativity helicopter to Earth (and vice versa) go through perseverance.
“The hope is that a future Mars helicopter can fly miles without being attached to a craft and carry its own science instruments,” Karas said. “We think there is a lot of scientific opportunity in this.”
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