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 Ravish, head of the mechanical engineering team.
Hundreds of people have contributed to the project, although only about a dozen people currently hold daily roles.
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Ravish’s initial suspicions were understandable: the density of air on Mars is only 1% of Earth’s. By 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 their batteries during the day, and directing its flights using an array of sensors, given that a 15-minute delay in communications from Earth makes real-time guidance 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 deal with stronger winds than we expected,” Ravic told AFP.
Since then, Ingenuity has flown 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.
Now, Ingenuity is sent to explore the way for Perseverance, using its 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.
“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.