NASA's Tiny Ingenuity helicopter still flies high after 6 months on Mars
It can only fly five times. Still, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has made 12 flights to Mars and is not ready to retire yet.
Given the overwhelming and unexpected success, the US space agency has extended the mission indefinitely.
The tiny helicopter has become a giant companion of the Perseverance rover, whose main task is to search for traces of ancient life on Mars.
"Everything is working so well," said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity's mechanical engineering team. "We're doing better on the surface than we had expected."
Hundreds of people are involved in the project, although currently only a dozen remain in their day-to-day roles. Ravich joined the team five years ago.
"When I got the opportunity to come work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as anybody else: 'Is that even possible?'"
His initial doubts were understandable: the air on Mars has a density of only 1% of the Earth's atmosphere. By comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars would be like flying in the sky, nearly 30 kilometres above Earth.
It was not easy to go to Mars either. The ingenuity had to withstand the initial shock of liftoff from Earth and landing on the Red Planet on February 18 after a seven-month trip to space in the rover's belly.
In its new environment, the small helicopter (four pounds or 1.8 kilograms) must survive the cold nights on Mars and draw heat from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. And its flights are guided by many sensors, because the 15-minute delay in ground communications makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity made its maiden flight and made history as the first motor vehicle to fly to another planet.
He exceeded all expectations and flew 11 more times.
"We've actually been able to handle winds greater than we had expected," Ravich told AFP.
"I think by flight three we had actually accomplished all of our engineering goals...[and] got all the information we had hoped to get," said Ravich, who works for NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which developed the helicopter.
Ingenuity has since flown up to 12 meters and the last flight lasted two minutes and 49 seconds. A total of 1.6 km was covered. In May, Ingenuity flew its first one-way mission, landing outside the relatively flat "airfield" that had been carefully chosen as the original home.
But all did not go well. The sixth flight brought some excitement.After the small vehicle was dangerously out of balance due to a malfunction that affected photos taken for in-flight stabilization, it was able to recover. He landed safely and the issue was resolved. Ingenuity is now sent to explore the path of perseverance with its high resolution color camera. The objective is twofold: to provide the rover with a safe trajectory, but also scientific, in particular geological.
Ken Farley, leader of the science team at Perseverance, explained how Ingenuity's photos from the 12th flight showed that an area called South Seitha was less interesting than scientists had hoped. This prevents the rover from being sent there.
"The environment has been very cooperative so far: the temperatures, the wind, the sun, the dust in the air... It's still very cold, but it could have been a lot worse," said Ravich.
"Something in the 20 to 30 kilograms [range] maybe, able to carry science payloads," said Ravich.
NASA plans to recover these samples during a future mission in the 2030s.
Sources:- GMA news online
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