NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter to fly over the hills of Mars

Helicopter and robber selfie

The rover and its support helicopter are heading for the hills

The derring-do Mars helicopter is about to face its biggest challenge yet.

The Ingenuity drone, which will accompany NASA’s Perseverance rover, will fly over the hills surrounding their exploration site on the Red Planet.

The pair are currently on the floor of Jezero Crater, but the plan is for them both to climb up and out of this bowl.

Ginny, as the drone is called, therefore had to undergo software upgrades in order to navigate slopes.

“Until now, Ingenuity has always believed that Mars is completely flat, like a pancake,” chief pilot Håvard Grip told BBC News.

“Only now with these most recent software updates can we tell Ingenuity that ‘no, in fact it’s not flat; there are hills’.”

Ginny made history in 2021 by becoming the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another world.

It was a straightforward maneuver to a height of only 3 meters, but it proved the principle.

Since then, the helicopter has flown higher and further 35 times.

Not bad for what should have been just a short technology demonstration. But the opportunities presented by a reconnaissance helicopter were just too good for NASA to pass up.

Broken hardware

Ingenuity captured this aerial view of discarded Perseverance landing system hardware

The drone now supports Perseverance by surveying the road ahead and helping the wheeled robot and its “backseat drivers” on Earth choose the right path.

It also does science, taking aerial photos of outcrops from multiple angles so researchers can build 3D models of interesting targets for further study.

But the future is about to get a lot harder. Once Perseverance has dropped some rock samples to the ground to collect them later and return them to Earth through missions at the end of the decade, the rover will move to higher ground. And Ingenuity is coming along.

The pair will climb the 40-meter-high deposits of an ancient river delta feature, then head towards the rim of the Jezero crater.

The newly installed software enables the helicopter to make the necessary navigation corrections when the ground in front of it rises.

It should also help with another problem: dangerous stones on the ground at the time of landing.

Engineers on Earth are currently analyzing satellite imagery to find safe locations to land. “But it’s harder to correlate orbital images with small rocks on the ground in the hills. That’s where this other feature comes in, where, right before landing, Ingenuity itself can look down at the ground and figure out where the rocks are and avoid them,” explains Grip.

The chief pilot keeps a logbook in which he records all of Ginny’s flights. It’s full now.

“We were only going to fly five times. We thought, well, a book with only five pages would just look awesome. So we put in a few extra pages to make it look more like a real book. But guess what? We’re out of pages. Ingenuity made its 36th flight, and coincidentally, that flight also marked the threshold for Ingenuity having spent a full hour in the Martian skies.”

Graphical representation of NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity

Graphical representation of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity

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