A year ago, Ingenuity made its first flight to Mars. And his story since then is that of a little real-world helicopter that could.
Ingenuity traveled to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, and they both reached Jezero Crater last february (Serial number: 02/17/21). About six weeks later, the helicopter began what was supposed to be just a 30-day technology demonstration to see if it was possible to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere.
That proved he could fly – and something else (Serial number: 04/19/21). Over the next two weeks, Ingenuity took four more flights, each time going a little farther, a little faster, and a little higher. After those first test flights, Ingenuity’s mission transformed from a technology demo to operations, helping Perseverance break through the surface exploring the terrain ahead (Serial number: 04/30/21; Serial number: 10/12/21).
Before the helicopter arrived, scientists had two views of Mars. “We have images taken from orbit around Mars, and then we have images taken by rovers driving over the ground,” says planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach of Rice University in Houston, who is not part of the Ingenuity team. “But now this has opened up a whole new perspective on Mars.”
The ingenuity has exceeded all expectations. It has shown not only that flight is possible, but also what is possible with flight. science news He talked about the great moments of the helicopter, the collaboration with the rover and the upcoming flights with Håvard Fjær Grip. He is the lead pilot for Ingenuity and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
serial number: What does the “chief pilot” of a helicopter do on another planet?
Grip: Most of the work is planning the flights. Ingenuity doesn’t know where he is or where he wants to go when he wakes up, so all those decisions are made here. [on Earth]. Every maneuver the helicopter makes during flight is planned here on the ground first, and then we transmit the instructions to Ingenuity. When it’s time to fly, it uses its built-in software to follow our instructions as accurately as possible.
serial number: ingenuity has completed 25 flights. Can you talk about how it has exceeded expectations?
Grip: it’s pretty good. We got there expecting to do at most five flights within the 30-day window. And all of that was going to happen within a small area that we carefully selected. We spent weeks figuring out exactly where to put the helicopter, studying these little rocks. Everything was planned. And then things went so well when we started flying that almost immediately people started thinking, “Wow, let’s try to use this beyond those five flights.”
We started this next phase where, in order to be useful, we had to fly away from this carefully selected area. I am very proud of that. We’ve been able to take this technology that was designed for this very limited mission and extend it to go and land in different places on Mars and travel through terrain that we never originally planned to travel.
It’s lasted over a year since we deployed it to the surface. I don’t think any of us would have imagined that that would be possible.
serial number: Has there been a specific flight that has caught your attention?
Grip: Obviously, the first flight. That was the most important flight; remains. We had one more challenge [time on] flight six. It got exciting, because we had an anomaly during the flight. [A glitch led to navigation images being marked with the wrong time stamps, which caused Ingenuity to sway back and forth during its flight.] The wit had to overcome that and survive and hit the ground in one piece.
We have had some flights that have been dedicated to exploration activities. We went to an area where the rover was going to spend several months, got ahead of the rover and explored [it] so rover drivers can be more efficient in finding safe ways to drive. Those were flights 12 and 13. Then some of these longer flights have been exciting. Flight #9, up until a few days ago, was the biggest thing we’d ever done, in [a distance of] 625 meters. And with flight 25, we surpassed that and flew more than 700 meters.
serial number: There was a flight recently that had to be postponed due to a dust storm, right?
Grip: That’s right. That was flight No. 19. Flying, whether it’s on Mars or here on Earth, you’re worried about the weather. We always check the weather before we fly. And every time we’ve done that [on Mars]It had been more or less the same. Then, the afternoon before we were about to open flight 19, we were notified that we had a dust storm. That slowed us down quite a bit. When we woke up from that, we had dust on the nav camera lens and the sand partially covered our legs. We had to fly out of that, and it was a new challenge for the helicopter, but again, it tackled it perfectly.
serial number: Ingenuity has flown through two seasons on Mars. As the seasons change, so does the air pressure. Does that affect the helicopter?
Grip: Yes, that is a big problem. We knew, for several years before launch, exactly when we were going to land and where we were going to land. Our design was geared towards the first few months after landing, and that coincided with a particular season. [spring] in Jezero Crater on Mars. we could [ahead of launch] predict reasonably well what the density of the air would be. And when we spread [the mission] beyond that, the density of the air began to drop. In order to continue flying, we had to increase the speed of our rotor. In fact, we boosted it above anything we tried on Earth. Now that we have finished the summer, the density has started to increase again and we have been able to return to our original rotor speed and also extend our flight time.
serial number: What comes next? Are there any big flights planned soon?
Grip: Let’s make our way to the delta of the river that Perseverance is heading towards. We just completed the biggest hurdle to do it, flight 25, which was crossing this region called Séítah, which has a lot of sand and varied terrain. And when we get to the river delta, there are a few different options on the table: helping the rover drivers, scouting targets, or even potentially scouting on behalf of the upcoming Mars mission. Perseverance is the first part of a sample return campaign. He’s testing right now. And those samples will be left on the surface and eventually collected, that’s the plan anyway, and sent back to Earth.
SN: What does Ingenuity mean for future exploration?
Grip: This is a new era. Aviation in space is now a thing. We can’t think of Mars exploration without aerial assets as part of that. I think that’s the most exciting thing.