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A 'Big Leap' for NASA's Mars Plane Heralds a New Role in Mission Support

A ‘Big Leap’ for NASA’s Mars Plane Heralds a New Role in Mission Support

The Séítah region on Mars, riddled with boulders and sand dunes, was very challenging for NASA’s Perseverance rover to drive. So the rover’s small helicopter flew over the area on Monday and took some photos of a key location on the other side. In less than three minutes, creativity and perseverance saved the months he would have spent driving to take his own pictures.

Monday morning’s quick jump through Cittah was Ingenuity’s ninth flight to the surface of Mars so far, but it was the first time the helicopter had given a hand to persevere to search for signs of ancient life at Jezero Crater on the Red Sea. planet. Attached to the bottom of the Perseverance, the four-pound helicopter arrived at Mars on February 14, becoming the first object to make a flight on another world on April 19. The first series of flights were increasingly complex field tests to show how exotic helicopters could fly around where wheeled vehicles couldn’t.

But on Monday, NASA engineers pushed the boundaries of creativity further than ever. At 166 seconds, Ingenuity flew nearly 11 mph for nearly a half mile, or 2,050 feet — a far greater distance than its last flight in June, which was 525 feet. The helicopter flew across different parts of Sitah, taking pictures of the boundary, where the intersections between the various rock formations — called contacts, in the parlance of geology — constitute some of the most scientifically intriguing targets in the serious search for fossilized microbial life.

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“This was a huge leap – Big Leap – in terms of what we’ve done before. We went between sites that were 620,625 meters apart, which is a huge number compared to what we were doing before,” the lead pilot for Ingenuity Harvard Grip said in an interview. The innovative images, expected in the coming days after a trip through a late Mars data pipeline, will help Back on Earth, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory work to determine whether to send a tenacious down a path to sample rocks in that contact area.

The mission statement “is designed with high risk and high reward, which means that it makes sense for us to take on this additional risk because of the potential rewards,” Grip said.

Ninth flight directions of ingenuity.
Photo: NASA/JPL

Originally designed to fly short trips from point A to point B, the dexterity plunged into one of Setah’s eroded craters, slowed its speed and climbed slopes for the first time as it danced along a winding path. Autonomous navigation algorithms were written to only predict flights over flat terrain, so engineers tweaked the blade and convinced the helicopter that the Setah’s rugged features were flat. This required several simulations in preparation for the flight, essentially predicting whether the helicopter could spiral out of control under its new flight directions. There were no accidents and Creativity was able to reach the intended rock formation on the other side of Sitta.

Ken Williford, Deputy Project Scientist at Mission Perseverance said in an in-person interview.

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Sending a small drone over a potentially dangerous field of thick sand to search for cold Martian rocks is a huge time-saver for the persistence team. “If scientists can get those images of this compound early, we can start the scientific process much earlier than we would otherwise, and start making observations and interpretations and understanding what those rocks are,” Williford says.

A still image taken by Ingenuity in May during its sixth flight. More recent photos by Setah of the helicopter’s ninth flight were not readily available.
Photo: NASA/JPL

The rover has its own cameras, primarily designed to analyze nearby rocks and views of Mars. Sensors aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite 255 miles above the surface of Mars, provide Perseverance Team images of distant rocky targets but lack the close-up detail that a helicopter like Ingenuity can provide.

The helicopter will retire after the first five air shows, allowing the Perseverance team to focus on its own business. But after Ingenuity passed its fourth flight in late April, engineers decided that: Expand the craft mission on Mars to show how helicopters can help future pioneers carry out science. Some mid-flight photos of creativity during test flights were fitting for regular scientists, but Monday’s flight marked the first time it had taken off with a single mission to help the rover’s science team.

Williford said that NASA leadership has agreed to expand the Innovation mission on the condition that it does not disrupt or disrupt the core Perseverance mission. Since then, a small “interface” team of engineers of perseverance and creativity, which acts as an operational glue between the two tasks, has expanded to include persistent scientists whose innovation has proven to be more scientifically beneficial than anticipated. For most NASA missions, these interface teams sometimes cause controversy and controversy as excited scientists negotiate technical risks with more risk-averse spacecraft engineers. Williford says the team’s creativity and perseverance are surprisingly smooth.

“This was a very unique interaction, where I can go in there and say, ‘You know what would be cool? If we could get here, listen to Bob Balaram. [Ingenuity’s chief engineer] Say, “Yes, let’s do that!” “He’s really pushing his team forward,” said Williford, who also serves as director of the Astrochemistry Laboratory at JPL. “It was truly one of the most fun things I have ever done. Working with these engineers and a few other scientists to truly plan these trips makes me feel like I am 12 years old again.”