Images from the Ingenuity chopper of an ancient rocky ridge where scientists hope to find indications of ancient, alien life will open the next chapter of Mars research.
As the tiny, 4-pound Ingenuity smashes records for interplanetary exploration, new photographs are expected. However, the aircraft is approaching the limitations of its design, according to Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s operations lead.
On Sunday, the plane travelled 254 yards, which is the length of a football field plus end zones. It hovered in four different locations to capture dual photos of outcrops around the so-called Raised Ridges feature in Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover is expected to drill rocks soon.
The trip broke multiple records for Ingenuity, including the duration of 2 minutes and 45 seconds, which was close to the maximum period NASA believes the aircraft can fly, which is 3 minutes.
“Every second that we fly we’re adding more heat into the motors, right?” Tzanetos said. “We are starting to reach the design limit of how long we can fly.”
Ingenuity has flown more than a mile in total on Mars, much farther than NASA ever expected. It has been functional and responsive for over 100 Martian days, besting the space agency’s plan for 31 Martian days of use.
Ingenuity’s new photos will help scientists determine the rover’s path over the next few weeks, Tzanetos said.
“Once we’ve finished our downlink from this flight, and we’ve assessed our full vehicle health, then we can start discussing where our next flight might be,” Tzanetos said.
The Mars 2020 mission, including the rover and helicopter, was launched from Florida on July 30 and landed on the Red Planet on Feb. 18. The helicopter made its historic first flight — the first powered, controlled flight on another planet — April 19.
After that, NASA decided the aircraft performed so well that its mission was extended to help scout for the rover, which is hunting for signs of ancient life.
At some point, NASA still expects that Ingenuity’s components will fail due to extreme temperature fluctuations on the planet, Tzanetos said. But no one knows how long that will take, he said.
“Despite that risk, the vehicle is just as healthy if not more capable than when we took off initially from the rover because we’ve gone through two rounds of flight software updates, and those have enabled additional operational capabilities,” he said.
He said that the helicopter’s team is working closely with the rover science team to determine what happens next.
This image, taken by the Mars helicopter Ingenuity during its ninth flight, shows a rocky terrain in the Jezero Crater area on the Martian surface on July 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of NASA