Ingenuity, the small drone that continues its mission on Mars after a year of flight

Ingenuity, the small drone that continues its mission on Mars after a year of flight

Ingenuity in its mission to Mars

Ingenuity, a helicopter weighing barely 1,800 grams, wrote a page in the history of space exploration a year ago by flying for the first time to another planet. Its five planned flights to Mars have multiplied: there are now 25. And it has become the aerial eyes of the Perseverace rover.

On April 19, 2021, the solar-powered helicopter climbed to three meters, hovered for 30 seconds and touched down again. In total 39.1 seconds of flight.

“What a spectacular thing,” NASA system engineer Elio Morillo told Efe of the day, who “had the great privilege of sending the command that woke the helicopter on the day of its first flight”.

A year later, the drone made 25 flights, with a total of 46.5 minutes in the air to travel 5,824 meters, with a maximum height of twelve meters, in a mission that was only planned as a technological demonstration. able to fly on Mars, but went much further.

Ingenuity had arrived at Jezero Crater on Mars just two months earlier in the bowels of Perseverance, which roams the planet with the primary goal of searching for traces of life.

Morillo, who participated in the first 30 days of the mission, explained that after the five scheduled flights, the helicopter would have been left in place, while Perseverance continued on its way, because it was thought that “it would be unable to keep at his own pace.”

The American rover “Perseverance” (right) next to the mini-helicopter “Ingenuity” (center) on the surface of Mars. Photo: –/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/dpa

But, with each flight, they learned that it can follow the rover, maintain communication with it, recharge its batteries, cross the freezing nights unscathed. Gradually, they expanded the boundaries to “fly further, faster, take pictures and add to the scientific value of the mission”.

In fact, Ingenuity has become a kind of assistant. “We no longer need to send Perseverance somewhere that could be dangerous, like sandy terrain where its wheels could get stuck.”

The helicopter goes and take photosthat help scientists understand the geochemical components of an area, without “caring about whether Perserverance should arrive or not,” said Morillo, who is currently tasked with monitoring and analyzing information from the rover’s engines.

The ingenuity opens the possibility that “in five or ten years”, instead of a rover, a series of drones with different scientific instruments could be sent to Mars, this one being equipped only with cameras.

Flying on Mars is not easy, because the pressure of the atmosphere on the surface is only 1% of that of Earth, so its two pairs of blades, placed on top of each other, must rotate very fast, at 2,537 revolutions per minute.

But tests had already been carried out on Earth, so “we had the confidence and the certainty that we could achieve it”, although before that moment other “nerves” and even “a little fear” had to be overcome. , did he declare.

Ingenuity's shadow on the surface of Mars during one of its NASA/JPL-CALTECH flights

Ingenuity’s shadow on the surface of Mars during one of its NASA/JPL-CALTECH flights

The first to ensure, through a series of tests, that the helicopter had suffered no damage during the trip and the separation with the Perseverance.

The seconds focused on the first night Ingenuity had to spend away from the rover’s protection, which provides heat so its battery doesn’t freeze. Tests had also been carried out on Earth, but the environment on Mars is “very uncertain”.

“Once we survived that first night, we said, ok, it can be done” and when it flew they knew NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was going to be “spectacular from there”.

Still, Ingenuity has had its share of problems, like when its Martian atmosphere release was postponed due to a software glitch that had to be fixed on Earth, or a recent sandstorm that left dust on its rotors and which has also been resolved.

Scheduled for a 30-day mission, it has already been in service for a year and Morillo hopes it will last “much longer”, although they are well aware of certain mechanical limitations on its slender legs which at “some point , can bend and break, because they don’t. They’re built to last that long.”

NASA compared Ingenuity’s flight to the feat achieved in 1903 by the Wright brothers, who performed the first powered flight. Morillo recalled that the helicopter has a small piece of fabric from that plane under its rotors, which for the team was “a complete honor.”

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