NASA has extended the flights of the first aircraft to operate on the surface of another planet until September. The helicopter will soon accompany the Perseverance rover and support its upcoming scientific campaign to study the ancient river delta of Jezero Crater.
Ingenuity is a small solar-powered robotic helicopter that landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, along with the car-sized Perseverance rover. On April 19, just two months after landing, Ingenuity made the world’s first powered extraterrestrial flight, taking off, hovering and landing in a flight lasting 39.1 seconds.
The space agency made the announcement after the plane’s 21st successful flight, the first of at least three required for a helicopter to cross part of a region called Seita on Mars to reach the next beachhead.
“Less than a year ago, we didn’t even know if a powered plane to Mars could be powered,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator, said in a press statement. “We are now looking forward to Ingenuity’s participation in the second Perseverance Science Campaign. Such a transformation of thinking in such a short period is simply amazing and is one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration.”
Ingenuity’s upcoming missions will feature much more treacherous terrain than the relatively flat terrain it has flown over since its deployment. The delta of the ancient river in Jezero Crater is fan-shaped and rises more than 40 meters above the crater floor.
It’s filled with jagged rocks, sloping surfaces, protruding boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stall a rover in its path, or even flip a helicopter on landing, according to NASA. But the delta could potentially hold the various geological discoveries and even evidence needed to determine whether microscopic life existed on Mars billions of years ago.
Once it reaches the delta, the vertibird’s first task will be to determine which of the two dry riverbeds Persevere should choose when it’s time to climb to the top of the delta. In addition to helping with routing, it will also provide data to the Perseverance team to evaluate potential scientific targets. Scientists can even turn to Ingenuity to get an image of geological features outside of the zone the rover can pass into.
According to Tedd Tzanetos, head of NASA’s Ingenuity team, the Jezero Delta campaign will be the biggest challenge the team will face since all Mars missions. The space agency has increased the size of its Ingenuity team and updated its flight software.