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With 21 Flights Under its Belt, Ingenuity is Getting a Mission …

NASA Extends Ingenuity Helicopter Mission?

Ingenuity, the helicopter currently zipping its way around Mars, has been a hotly watched topic here at UT. After completing its 21st mission and being on the planet for a little over a year, Ingenuity’s handlers have officially extended its mission in the hopes that it will continue its stellar, groundbreaking performances.

Perseverance, Ingenuity’s rover companion, is transitioning into its second scientific campaign, where it plans to travel 130 meters up from the Jezero crater floor to a dried-up river delta. Here it will focus on one of its primary missions – searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars. And Ingenuity will help lead the way.

Even Ingenuity’s path to the river delta, which isn’t limited to staying on the ground, won’t be easy. It will likely take three separate flights to get to a new staging area in the delta, including one that goes around a hill that rises off the crater floor. During this time, it will help scout a pathway for Perseverance to take, including providing information to decide which of two river channels the rover should take to reach the delta itself.

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Ingenuity in-situ near a rock field.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

At the same time, it will continue its own exploration program, including looking for geologic features of interest and scouting landing zones for the eventual Mars Sample Return mission that will be landing in the same general area to pick up the samples Perseverance has collected along its way. It will also be updating its own software.

Some software upgrades have already allowed the helicopter to exceed its previous maximum height of 50 meters. Additional improvements include the ability to change speeds and adjust better to changes in terrain, all of which enhance the overall efficacy and safety of the helicopter itself. Ultimately, the smarter Ingenuity becomes, the longer its mission can last, and future improvements to obstacle avoidance and terrain maps are still in the cards.

But ultimately, any flights past this point are just icing on the cake. “I remember thinking when this all started, we’d be lucky to have three entries [in my logbook] and immensely fortunate to get five. Now, at the rate we’re going, I’m going to need a second book,” said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL.

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NASA’s hard at work on the Red Planet. Watch the latest Mars Report for more on Ingenuity, along with the agency’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity’s new area of operations is entirely different from the modest, relatively flat terrain it has been flying over since its first flight last April. Several miles wide and formed by an ancient river, the fan-shaped delta rises more than 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater floor. Filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stop a rover in its tracks (or upend a helicopter upon landing), the delta promises to hold numerous geologic revelations – perhaps even the proof necessary to determine that microscopic life once existed on Mars billions of years ago.

So far, the little helicopter that could has traveled almost 5 kilometers (3 miles) and spent 38 minutes up in the air. The next step will be a 350 m journey toward the river delta, scheduled to take place around the time of writing. So far, the Ingenuity team has done an outstanding job making a complex task into a wildly successful one. Now it’s time for them to keep going.

Learn More:
NASA – NASA Extends Ingenuity Helicopter Mission
UT – How Time Flies: Perseverance and Ingenuity Have Been on Mars for a Year
UT – Glowing Helicopters on Mars
UT – With 17 Flights Completed, Ingenuity has Spent 30 Minutes Aloft on Mars

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