Tuesday, March 5, 2024

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown its first mile on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully completed its 10th flight on Mars on Saturday (July 24th), bringing its total distance flown on the Red Planet to more than one mile (roughly 1.60 kilometers) and capturing important images to help the Perseverance rover.

In a Twitter post early Sunday, NASA confirmed that its helicopter traveled over the Jezero Crater’s “Raised Ridges” area, which is an area that Perseverance scientists find intriguing and are considering visiting sometime in the future. It would be an ideal spot to look for evidence of past Martian life, which is the rover’s primary goal, and maybe even drills a sample for further examination.

The space agency’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission, said Ingenuity’s recent flight was the most complex flight to date – from navigation and performance perspectives. The helicopter had to swing past ten distinct waypoints and flew to a record-high altitude of 40 feet (12 meters) during its 310 feet (95 meters) journey. The mission also saw the 4-pound, 19-inch-high aircraft fly between 10 waypoints for around 165 seconds.

During the flight, Ingenuity also had to capture enough images to help NASA produce stereoscopic images of Raised Ridges and help inform a potential visit from the Perseverance rover. The helicopter flew to different waypoints and used an onboard camera to capture the same part of the Raised Ridges from two different angles. Imagery experts at JPL hope to combine the overlapping data from these two images to generate one stereo image. The helicopter also took images from other waypoints in the flight, again capturing the same spot from two different angles for the creation of more stereo images.

Ingenuity operations lead Teddy Tzanetos had described the helicopter’s planned flight path in a status update on Friday. Also, offering an overview of Ingenuity’s work to date, Tzanetos said the flying machine had survived 107 sols (Martian days) since deployment from Perseverance, 76 sols beyond the original technology demonstration mission it was designed for. It has also successfully executed two separate flight-software updates, improving the aircraft’s ability to execute flights and allow it to capture color imagery, and has so far taken 43 13-megapixel images. It’s flown a total distance of 0.997 miles (1.605 kilometers), with a total time aloft of 842 seconds (14 minutes, 2 seconds), in nine flights.

The one-mile threshold is significant by itself – it suggests the aircraft might accomplish a lot during Perseverance’s planned two-year mission, and possibly more.