on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter prepares for the expedition of a lifetime

on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter prepares for the expedition of a lifetime

NASA’s small Martian helicopter never ceases to impress, but it is now tackling a delicate stage of its new mission.

Ingenuity continues to exceed NASA’s expectations. While it was originally planned to perform a maximum of five flights, the privileged companion of the Perseverance rover recently completed its… 24th flight on Mars. And he is far from having said his last word. He is also preparing for his 25th voyage, the longest of his entire career as an explorer.

At this time, Perseverance has begun its transhumance towards the last stage of its journey: a delta located at the rim of the crater of Jezero, where the rover landed last February. The sensational work of the Perseverance – Ingenuity couple has already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that water was abundant in the area a few billion years ago.

However, water is inseparable from life as we know it; it is therefore a place where NASA is hopeful of being able to find vestiges of past life on Mars, assuming that there ever was one. The problem is that the journey is immensely perilous.

A grand new chapter of space exploration will begin once Perseverance arrives at the infamous delta, on the edge of Jezero Crater. © NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Heading for the delta

Because even for a rover experienced in difficult terrain like Perseverance, the road looks particularly tricky. He will have to deal with pockets of sand where he could get bogged down, sharp rocks that could damage the roads, and so on. And just one of these dreaded geological traps could put the entire mission in jeopardy.

To avoid unpleasant surprises and avoid finding yourself in a dead end potentially synonymous with the end of the mission, Perseverance does not spit on a little help. And that’s good; because since NASA realized Ingenuity’s potential, they assigned him a new role as a scout, which he welcomed with open arms.

For the past few months, he has been increasing his comings and goings to anticipate the pitfalls that await the rover. It should thus allow him to arrive safely; Perseverance will then be able to carry out its exploration of the delta, with many potential geological treasures at stake.

After nearly ten years of exploration and more than 20km covered, the unforgiving surface of Mars is beginning to claim its tribute from the wheels of the Curiosity rover. Ingenuity will allow Perseverance to avoid meeting the same fate en route. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The road to discovery is strewn with pitfalls

But if this operation will greatly facilitate the life of the rover, this does not mean that it will be trivial for its companion drone. Even if it is doing like a charm, the objective remains to prolong the life of this luxury sidekick as much as possible. NASA must therefore be patient and meticulously plan its every move.

Even though the rugged surface of Mars is neither hot nor cold, the Martian environment is not particularly hospitable to it. For starters, engineers need to pay special attention to weather conditions. Because in addition to being much finer than that of the earth, the Martian atmosphere has the annoying habit of losing density during certain seasons.

However, the ability of such a device to stay in the air depends directly on the density of the atmosphere. Very briefly, the higher it is, the easier it will be for the machine to “lean” on it. Conversely, if it is sparse as it is now, the lift will also drop. Ingenuity will therefore have to make extra efforts to fly.

Moreover, if the atmosphere is less dense, it also means that there are fewer molecules available to exchange heat with the robot. This therefore accumulates much more quickly when the engines are running at full speed; to avoid overheating, it will therefore have to be content with small leaps of a few minutes at most. Finally, NASA will also have to deal with the local weather, which could damage the equipment in the event of an ill-prepared flight.

An image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detailing the route.© NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/USGS

A new chapter for space exploration

The challenge will therefore be to ensure that Ingenuity can take its time, but without dragging on; he will have to make sure to stay ahead of the rover to play his role as a scout while avoiding overheating at all costs. Despite these constraints, he will have to juggle these constraints to achieve his longest flight to date; the plan of flight number 25 indeed mentions a journey of 704 meters, that is to say 80 meters more than the previous record.

So it’s quite a journey that awaits this little machine that never ceases to amaze its world. But with all the teams at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory caring, Ingenuity and Perseverance are in good hands; it’s just knock on wood for the road to go well. They will then open a new chapter in this fascinating space exploration adventure, and we are already looking forward to diving into it.

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