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

Ingenuity in his mission to Mars

Ingenuity, a helicopter weighing only 1,800 grams, wrote a page in the history of space exploration a year ago by flying for the first time to another planet. His five scheduled flights to Mars have multiplied: they are now 25. And he has become the aerial eye of the Perseverace rover.

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

“What a spectacular thing,” NASA systems engineer Elio Morillo told Efe that 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 cover 5,824 meters, with a maximum height of twelve meters, on a mission that was only planned as a technology demonstration capable of flying. on Mars, but it went much further.

The ingenuity had arrived at the Jezero crater on Mars just two months earlier, in the bowels of Perseverance, which is scouring the planet with the main goal of looking for traces of life.

Morillo, who was involved in the first 30 days of the mission, explained that, after the five scheduled flights, the helicopter would remain behind, while Perseverance continued its route, as it was thought that it “would not be able to keep up with its rhythms “.

the American rover
The American rover “Perseverance” (right) next to the “Ingenuity” mini-helicopter (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, charge its batteries, get through the frozen nights unscathed. Gradually they expanded the limits to “fly farther, faster, take pictures and increase the scientific value of the mission”.

Indeed, Ingenuity has become something of a helper. “We no longer have to send Perseverance to a place that could be dangerous, like a sandy ground where its wheels could get stuck.”

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

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

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

But the tests had already been done on Earth, so “we had the confidence and the certainty that we could do it,” even if before that it was necessary to overcome other “nerves” and even “little fear,” he said.

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 make sure, with a series of tests, that the helicopter had not suffered damage during the journey and the detachment from Perseverance.

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

“Once we survived that first night we said okay, it can be done” and when he flew they knew NASA’s Mars 2020 mission would be “spectacular from then on.”

However, Ingenuity has had its share of problems, such as when its release into the Martian atmosphere was postponed due to a software problem that needed to be fixed on Earth, or a recent sandstorm that left dust on its rotors and it was also fixed.

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 some mechanical limitations of his beautiful legs which, “at some point, may bend and they break, because they are not made to last that long. “

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

(with information from EFE)


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