WASHINGTON — After nearly a year of operations, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is still “as good as new” as it serves as an explorer for the tenacious rover.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced on March 11 that Ingenuity had completed its 21st flight on the planet, covering 370 meters during the 129-second flight. The helicopter has now traveled more than 4.6 kilometers since its maiden flight in April 2021.
Creativity was developed as technology proof, with an original plan of no more than five trips over the course of the month. The 1.8-kilogram propeller’s stellar performance, though, led NASA to expand its mission, using it as a scout to examine the terrain ahead of the persistent rover that carried creativity to Mars.
The information provided by her ingenuity did save some modest time for perseverance. Matt Golombek, a senior researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who participated in the Mars landing craft dating back to the Mars Pathfinder, said during a March 8 briefing at the Planetary and Lunar Science Conference. A Sol day is a Martian day, about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.
Other scholars agreed with persistence that creativity was beneficial. “I was really impressed with how well it worked and how useful it was,” Justin Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who works on the Perseverance mission, said during the conference session on March 7. It was totally expected, at least myself.”
Another Perseverance scholar, Keyron Hickman-Lewis of the UK’s Natural History Museum, told that conference session that creativity was particularly useful when Perseverance negotiated an area called Séítah. “The terrain is not ideal for a rover,” he said of the area. “These ideas were invaluable.”
This work will continue as persistence heads in the coming weeks to the remainder of the River Delta. “The intent is to keep the helicopter out of the rover to provide advance information that will aid in its exploration,” Golombek said. This includes the exploration paths the rover can take in the delta and identifying rocks for the rover to study with its toolkit.
The creativity itself showed no signs of wear after nearly a year of flying on Mars. So far, we have not found any deterioration or loss of anything on board the helicopter. It’s as good as new.
The helicopter, which uses solar energy, also has no consumables to limit its life. “There is nothing consumable and nothing stopping us from continuing to operate as long as the helicopter remains in good health,” he said, expecting to continue creativity in operations until eventually something breaks.
This performance is noteworthy, he added, due to the use of commercial-ready parts that have been prequalified for space on Ingenuity, rather than custom components. “It is remarkable that we did not suffer any deterioration or loss in any aspect of the helicopter,” he said.
Golombek said the Ingenuity’s performance demonstrates how useful such helicopters will be for future exploration, although NASA currently has no confirmed plans for additional helicopter missions. “The idea for the technology demo is to prove that this is a new way to explore Mars,” he said. “Creativity has shown promise in this kind of way to continue our exploration of the Red Planet.”
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