- Rebecca Morell
- Science correspondent, BBC News
The US Space Agency (NASA) announced that it has decided to extend the mission of its helicopter on Mars.
NASA said that the first three flights of the drone, called the Ingeniotti, went well, allowing the transition from the demonstration stage to the operational stage.
This means that the helicopter will now support NASA’s Perseverance spacecraft, to help it search for traces of life on Mars.
The new phase will last for 30 days with astronomical calculations of the planet Mars, but the team expressed hope that it could be extended further.
“The technical performance was outstanding and exceeded all our expectations,” said Mimi Ong, Project Manager Ingeniotti.
He added, “I cannot express to you how excited we are for this new phase.”
Ingenuity’s maiden flight, on April 19, made history as the first powered flight on another planet.
The helicopter, weighing 1.8kg, blasted into the very thin Martian atmosphere and flew two meters for 40 seconds before landing.
During its second and third flights, the helicopter flew farther, reaching a height of 5 meters before it set off sideways for a distance of 50 meters, and then returned to its landing site.
NASA’s basic plan was to make two more flights, before the helicopter layover and the technology review finished.
Friday’s announcement, however, is a change of course. The US space agency said it was very pleased with the performance of the helicopter and wanted to push my Ingenuity further than it had achieved.
“It was windy, blazing great, all the engineering systems, the solar panel, the battery and the radio were working very well – everything was great,” said Bob Palaram, chief engineer of Ingenuity.
Ingenuity will now assist in the science program conducted by Perseverance.
It will work with the vehicle to begin exploring the Jezero Crater – a region of Mars that was once a lake.
The rover will search for rock samples that it can study through the laboratory on board – its ultimate goal is to find signs of life.
During the helicopter’s new operational phase, it will fly up to a kilometer farther from the Perseverance vehicle, in search of promising geological features and exploring areas that the vehicle cannot reach.
It will also create digital maps of elevations, which will help scientists better understand the terrain.
The hope is that this will demonstrate how aerial exploration can assist future missions.
With the fourth flight of the helicopter, which took place on Friday, the transition into operation began.
It was planned to make a 266-meter round trip and take 60 black and white photos and five color photos. NASA confirmed that the helicopter flew farther and faster than ever before.
This data will assist the team in defining a new field of aviation. On its next flight, in about a week’s time, the helicopter will head there until the next leg of its mission begins.
NASA hopes the helicopter will do well, but acknowledges that the next stage will push the helicopter to its limits – it was originally designed to fly only as a technology show.
“We will now fly over unpaved terrain and move to airstrips that do not have good characteristics, so there is a greater possibility of a bad landing,” Mimi Ong said.
He added, “We will celebrate every day that my inninuity continues and works outside the original window.”