NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter broke its own record

NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter broke its own record

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More than a year and a half after its first flight to Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter set a new record.

The tiny 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter completed its 35th flight on Dec. 3 and reached a new altitude record of 46 feet (14 meters).

The aerial excursion lasted 52 seconds and took the helicopter about 50 feet (15 meters) to move it. It was Ingenuity’s first substantial sortie since an 18-second jump-and-hover maneuver on Nov. 22 to test the helicopter after receiving a major software upgrade that could extend the helicopter’s life.

The software will help Ingenuity avoid hazards when landing on the rocky surface of Mars by generating digital altitude maps as it navigates future flights.

Ingenuity was originally conceived as a technology demonstration that would pursue just five flights to Mars after a trip to the red planet with the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the Martian landscape since February 2021.

Instead, the helicopter has proven itself time and time again to become the rover’s aerial scout, flying over areas deemed too dangerous for the rover and surveying potential future destinations.

This expanded role also sent Ingenuity flying over and landing in much more challenging terrain than its team had ever anticipated. Now that the team has had time to assess how Ingenuity adjusts to its upgrades, the small helicopter is ready to take off again for regular flights.

Ingenuity will then begin flying up the steep terrain of the ancient river delta, where water once flowed into Jezero Crater more than 3 billion years ago.

Ingenuity’s surprising journey also paved the way for future aerial probes.

“Ingenuity’s success led to NASA’s decision to take two Ingenuity-class helicopters to the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander planned for later this decade,” wrote Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer emeritus, in NASA blog update.

“These sampling helicopters with wheels instead of legs and a small manipulator arm with a two-fingered gripper will, if necessary, carry valuable sample tubes from sample storage back to the Mars Ascent Vehicle for launch back to Earth.” A more powerful Mars science helicopter with the ability to carry a nearly 5 kg science payload is also in the early conceptual and design stages.”

Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover continues to collect intriguing samples from Mars. On Dec. 2 and Dec. 6, the robotic explorer collected its first two samples of regolith, or windblown sand and dust, from a small dune.

“There are so many different materials mixed into the Martian regolith,” astrobiologist Libby Hausrath, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Mars Sample Return scientist, said in a statement. “Each sample represents an integrated history of the planet’s surface.”

Perseverance will drop off some of its samples later this month at a designated flatbed location. The cache will be collected from future missions during Campaign to return samples from Mars and returned to Earth in 2030.

The crushed rocks and dust could reveal more about the environment and geological history of Mars, but they could also shed light on how that dust might affect solar panels, spacesuits and other items needed for crewed missions to the red planet.

When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, it was discovered that the lunar regolith was sharp enough to tear small holes in their spacesuits.

Scientists know that the surface of Mars contains a toxic chemical called perchlorate, which could pose a threat to future explorers if inhaled.

“If we’re going to have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats,” said Erin Gibbons, a doctoral student in Earth and planetary sciences at McGill University in Montreal and a member of the Perseverance rover science team. in a statement.

“Some of these particles can be as fine as cigarette smoke and can get into the astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We want a more complete picture of which materials would be harmful to our researchers, whether human or robot.”

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