The US Space Agency’s “Ingenuity” helicopter is on its 12th flight, although it was scheduled to fly a maximum of 5 times, while “NASA” officials do not seem ready to stop there.
The US space agency has extended the mission indefinitely after its great success, and the helicopter has become a companion to the rover “Perseverance” robot tasked with monitoring traces of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything is going well,” said Josh Ravish, who is in charge of the mechanical engineering team at Ingenuity. “We’re doing better than expected on Mars.”
Hundreds have contributed to the project, although only about 10 people are still involved in the project, and Josh Ravich joined the team 5 years ago.
“When I had the opportunity to start working on the helicopter, I had the same reaction as many people who wondered (would it be possible) to fly over Mars,” he said.
This challenge is significant because the air on Mars is only 1% denser than the Earth’s atmosphere.
For comparison, this is similar to flying a helicopter at an altitude of thirty kilometers on the ground.
The Ingenuity helicopter was also forced to resist a missile launch and landing on the Red Planet on February 18, after 7 months during which it remained attached to the mobile robot, which it later separated from.
Another difficulty is to survive the icy nights of Mars by raising its temperature thanks to solar panels that charge its batteries during the day.
It also had to fly independently thanks to a series of sensors, since delays in communication between Earth and Mars hamper the transmission of real-time instructions.
On April 19, Ingenuity made its first flight, a historic event for a motorized vehicle over another planet, and the mission exceeded expectations and made eleven more flights.
“We were able to take on stronger winds than we thought,” says Josh Ravich.
“During the third flight, we hit all the mechanical targets, and collected all the information we hoped for,” this employee at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told AFP.
Since then, the helicopter has climbed to an altitude of 12 meters and its last flight lasted two minutes and 49 seconds, and in total, the helicopter traversed a distance of 2.6 kilometers.
In early May, the helicopter made its first round trip, landing off a carefully selected route for its first month.
The sixth flight was turbulent: after a delicate balancing act due to a glitch in images taken during the flight to aid in the stabilization, the helicopter eventually landed safely and the problem was fixed.
Ingenuity is now sent as a detector vehicle to take pictures with a color camera, as the built-in tool alone is not necessary for proper operation.
The goal is twofold: to ensure the safety of the road for the mobile robot, in addition to a scientific benefit, especially in terms of geology.
“The images taken by Ingenuity from an area called South Sitha showed that they were less significant than expected,” said Ken Farley, scientific officer at Preseverance during the 12th flight.
So the researchers might give up on the idea of sending the mobile robot there.
After more than 6 months on the Red Planet, the tiny 1.8kg rover has become increasingly popular with the public and its images on mugs and T-shirts are being sold online.
But what is the secret of its long life?
Josh Ravich explains that the environment has been “very good so far: temperatures, wind, sun, dust in the air,” adding, “It’s very cold though, but things could have gotten worse.”
Theoretically, the helicopter could operate for an additional period of time, but the approaching winter season may complicate matters.
But with the data that Ingenuity has collected so far, engineers are considering a possible alternative to this helicopter, the next generation of helicopters on Mars.
“We expect to develop helicopters with a weight of between 20 and 30 kilograms, capable of transporting scientific equipment,” says Josh Ravich.
These future changes may be the rock samples that Perseverance is currently pulling, and NASA plans to collect them during a future mission in the 1930s.