After NASA successfully demonstrated the feasibility of flying on the surface of Mars, on Friday it announced it will extend the mission of the Innovation Tiny helicopter by an additional month, becoming the persistent rover companion.
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It will now be responsible for supporting the rover in its main mission, to search for ancient life on Mars, for example by going to explore places of scientific interest that are inaccessible by driving, or by determining the safest path.
“The innovation will move from a technology demonstration mission, where we demonstrate the helicopter’s technical capabilities, to an operations demonstration mission, where we gather information about the helicopter’s ability to provide operational support.” At Perseverance, Laurie Glaz, director of NASA’s Division of Planetary Study, at a press conference.
Perhaps one day, human explorers will also accompany flying devices to help them, and this is also what this new stage will allow to test, she said.
She added: “After 30 days, we will assess our place,” and the US space agency did not rule out extending the experiment further after that.
Be careful, however, the creativity “was not really designed for a long task,” said Bob Palaram, chief engineer of the machine, noting particularly the deleterious effect of repeated freeze-thaw cycles.
It will also be essential that Ingenuity not crash, while its journeys will be more dangerous.
So far, he’s done it all brilliantly, including Fourth Friday, the longest so far: 266 meters in total, at 117 seconds.
The purpose of this flight in particular was to locate a new location where it could safely land very soon. So far, it has always returned to its original runway, but that won’t be the case on Flight 5, which is expected to take place in about a week. This time, creativity will fly off without making the return flight, before persevering.
NASA then expects two more flights in 30 days.
Help with rock samples
The helicopter’s mission was initially scheduled to end in a month, as NASA then expected the spacecraft to move quickly and far to reach an area of interest to sample rocks.
Creativity at the time could not keep pace, as it had to recharge the solar panels between every trip.
But the researchers finally decided otherwise: “We really want to spend a significant amount of time where we are,” said Ken Farley, a scientist of persistence.
They believe that in the area they will find “rocks that are probably the oldest material found on the floor of the crater,” Jizero, where perseverance landed last February, in addition to “the rocks deposited in the middle of the lake that once filled and clarified this hole.
He added, “This is the kind of environment that we think is more suitable for life by living things that may have been present on Mars billions of years ago.”
The first sample should be taken in July.
For the first time, Perseverance will collect samples that must be returned to Earth on a subsequent mission, within several years.