After four successful flights, NASA decided to expand the Ingenuity mini helicopter mission. In principle there will be another 30 Mars days called “Suns”, but if all goes well, the intrepid drone can continue to operate until the end of August.
Ingenuity was conceived as a technological demonstrator and was included at the last minute on the Mars 2020 mission, the protagonist of which is Perseverance, a rover roaming the Jezero crater on Mars in search of evidence of past life on the red planet.
The original plan included 30 suns and five flights to demonstrate the feasibility of an airworthy aircraft in the thinned Martian atmosphere. After the success of the first flight on April 19, MiMi Aung, the mission’s chief engineer, even considered pushing the helicopter to its limits on the fifth flight and flying further and higher, presumably until it crashed, thereby ending the demonstration. It was strange and even a little shocking when she suggested it at the press conference.
Of course, that’s where NASA’s gears began to move themselves. It’s not in the agency’s nature to just throw away $ 85 million worth of fully functional devices without realizing their full potential. On the other hand, the helicopter acts as a virtual anchor for the Perseverance rover, which must always be nearby during the flight. That said, there is a conflict between the goals of one and the other vehicle (which, by the way, have separate teams, although some of their members are in both).
Last Friday’s announcement (30) suggests that this drama has been overcome. After the fifth flight, Ingenuity will move into an operational demonstration phase. That is, instead of focusing on testing whether a machine heavier than air can fly on Mars, the continued operation of a helicopter is tested on Martian soil.
The fourth flight, which has already been carried out, included a 266-meter crossing between outward and return flights with the aim of finding a new suitable landing site. In the fifth, he will make his first “one-way” trip and drop off at the chosen location.
And from there, Ingenuity will make less frequent flights, “dance” around the rover, create elevation maps of the regions it is flying over, and investigate potential targets of interest to its robot companion.
It will be a riskier but also a more useful phase in the life of the helicopter. First another 30 days or until the equipment fails, whichever comes first. And new enhancements can come by the end of August, when the rover needs to focus on ending its science activities by the time Mars connects with the sun in mid-October. It is a time when communication between Earth and Mars becomes impossible and forces an interruption in activities. Until then, however, there may be many flights ahead.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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