NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has performed so well during its test flights on Mars that the space agency has now put the aircraft to work.
Color images captured by its on-board camera during its ninth and most recent flight earlier this month are being used by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Mars mission, to map out a safe route for the Perseverance rover and help pinpoint new areas of interest for the rover to explore.
In another first, aerial images taken by #MarsHelicopter helped scout an area of interest for the @NASAPersevere science team and revealed obstacles the rover may need to drive around as it explores Jezero Crater. https://t.co/R0EqMTVRq0 pic.twitter.com/4FSAGAYNjw
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) July 13, 2021
After proving that the autonomous drone-like aircraft can handle Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere following its historic maiden flight in April, JPL talked much about using future versions of Ingenuity to assist planetary rovers during their explorations.
But Ingenuity’s increasingly complex trial flights over the last three months have gone so well that the mission team has decided to jump ahead and put the current helicopter to work.
Up to now, Mars rovers have had to use their own cameras to check the way ahead. But this can be a slow process as the vehicle edges forward, carefully detecting and avoiding obstacles such as boulders, sudden dips, and sand dunes.
The mission team can also utilize data gathered by the HiRISE (the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but it’s so far from the red planet’s surface that it can only reliably identify rocks at least one meter in diameter.
Being able to use imagery from a camera-equipped helicopter flying just a few meters off the ground is a real boon, giving the team a clearer understanding of the terrain and enabling it use the data to confidently send its rover to its next destination, at a faster speed than before.
It’s certainly great to see Ingenuity contributing in a meaningful way to the current rover mission after emerging from its test phase so quickly.
“The helicopter is an extremely valuable asset for rover planning because it provides high-resolution imagery of the terrain we want to drive through,” said JPL’s Olivier Toupet. “We can better assess the size of the dunes and where bedrock is poking out. That’s great information for us; it helps identify which areas may be traversable by the rover and whether certain high-value science targets are reachable.”
JPL is using Perseverance to explore Mars’ Jezero Crater. Given that the area was once filled with water, the team believes there’s a good chance it will contain evidence of ancient life. To find out for certain, the rover will drill samples of material from beneath the planet’s surface that will later be returned to Earth for in-depth analysis.