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The Ingenuity helicopter, initially designed for five flights, is about to begin its second year of flying on Mars.
The little chopper’s mission has been extended through September by NASA, the agency announced Monday. Ingenuity just completed its 21st successful flight.
It will serve as an aerial scout aiding the Perseverance rover as it explores an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, to search for signs of life, if it ever existed there.
Ingenuity made history when it flew on Mars for the first time last April. Since then, what was once regarded as an experiment has become a crucial component to the rover’s mission of studying the crater.
“Less than a year ago we didn’t even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity’s involvement in Perseverance’s second science campaign. Such a transformation of mindset in such a short period is simply amazing, and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration.”
Things are about to change for Ingenuity, which normally flies over flat terrain.
The delta, which once funneled a river into the lake that filled Jezero Crater more than three billion years ago, is shaped like a fan and stands more than 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater floor.
This intriguing area, which sandwiches together layers of rock that Perseverance can sample, also poses new risks to the rover and the helicopter with its jagged cliffs, sand-filled pockets, boulders and angled surfaces.
Once Ingenuity and Perseverance reach the delta, the helicopter will have its first assignment – helping to determine which dry river channel Perseverance should use to climb to the top of the delta. Ingenuity will also take photos that help the rover’s science team determine the most interesting targets and also capture images of other features that may be too far or dangerous for Perseverance to reach.
The helicopter may even be called to scout potential landing zones for the Mars Sample Return program, which will send the samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth by the 2030s.
“The Jezero river delta campaign will be the biggest challenge the Ingenuity team faces since first flight at Mars,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “To enhance our chances of success, we have increased the size of our team and are making upgrades to our flight software geared toward improving operational flexibility and flight safety.”
To prepare for the next phase of its journey, Ingenuity has received software upgrades that will allow it to reach greater altitudes than 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground, as well as faster airspeed while flying. In the future, the helicopter’s team may have to make more upgrades to ensure that Ingenuity can avoid the increasing hazards it could encounter.
Ingenuity’s next few flights will help it reach the delta. One flight will include a complex aerial excursion on March 19 that will send the helicopter over 1,150 feet (350 meters) and includes a sharp bend to avoid a large hill.
Since beginning flights on Mars, Ingenuity has spent over 38 minutes flying through the Martian atmosphere and traveled 2.9 miles (4.64 kilometers).
“This upcoming flight will be my 22nd entry in our logbook,” said Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip at JPL in a statement. “I remember thinking when this all started, we’d be lucky to have three entries and immensely fortunate to get five. Now, at the rate we’re going, I’m going to need a second book.”