The brave Martian helicopter is about to take on its biggest challenge yet.
Accompanying NASA’s Perseverance rover, the drone will begin flying over the hills that surround the exploration site on the Red Planet.
The couple is currently on the floor of Jezero Crater, but the plan is for them to climb in and out of that bowl.
So, the Genie, as the drone is known, had to have software upgrades to allow it to navigate the slopes.
“Up until this point, Ingenuity had always lived in the belief that Mars is completely flat, like a pie,” chief pilot Harvard Grape told BBC News.
Only now with these latest software updates can we tell Ingenuity that “No, actually, it’s not flat; There are hills.”
Genie made history in 2021 when it became the first vehicle to achieve motorized flight on another world.
It was a straight up and down maneuver at only 3 metres, but it proved the principle.
Since then, the helicopter has flown higher and further on 35 other occasions.
Not bad for what was supposed to be just a short tech demo. But the opportunities offered by the reconnaissance helicopter were simply too good for NASA to pass up.
The drone now supports Perseverance by scanning the road ahead, helping the wheeled robot and “backseat drivers” on the ground choose the right lane.
She also does science, taking airborne images of rocky outcrops from multiple angles so that researchers can build 3D models of interesting targets for further investigation.
But the future is about to get even tougher. Once Perseverance drops some rock samples to Earth for later collection and returns to Earth through missions at the end of the decade, the rover will head to higher ground. Creativity will go along.
The pair will climb the 40-meter sediments of an ancient river delta feature, then head toward the rim of Jezero Crater.
The newly installed software will allow the helicopter to make the necessary navigation corrections when the ground in front of it rises.
It should also help with another problem: dangerous rocks on the ground at the moment of landing.
Engineers on the ground are currently analyzing satellite images to find locations that are safe to touch. “But it’s hard to correlate orbital images with the little rocks on the ground in the hills. That’s where this other feature comes in, where, just before landing, the same ingenuity can look at the ground and see where the rocks are and avoid them,” Grebe explained.
The chief pilot keeps a logbook of all Jenny’s flights. It’s full now.
“We were only going to fly five times. We thought, well, a book with only five pages would look so silly. And so we put a bunch of extra pages in there just so it would look like a real book. But guess what? We’re out of pages. Creativity has its sixth flight.” Thirty, and coincidentally, that flight also marked the threshold of creativity after spending a full hour in the Martian sky.”
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