Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 29 April 2023

Ingenuity completes 50th flight

Source: By The Indian Express

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the first aircraft on another world, completed a half-century of flights on 13 April 2023.

On its 50th flight, Ingenuity travelled a distance of 322.2 metres over a period of 145.7 seconds, according to NASA. During the flight, it also attained its highest-ever altitude of 18 metres before it landed near the 800-metre-wide Belva Crater on the red planet.

Flying on risky terrain

Since it left the relatively flat geography of the Jezero Crater’s floor on 19 January 2023, the rotorcraft has flown 11 times. Along the way, it set new high-speed and altitude records.

We are not in Martian Kansas anymore. We’re flying over the dried-up remnants of an ancient river that is filled with sand dunesboulders, and rocks, and surrounded by hills that could have us for lunch. And while we recently upgraded the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still a white-knuckler, said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA, in a press statement.

The Martian winter came with a continent-sized dust storm which meant that the helicopter had to be grounded for a long time. Even though those conditions have changed, Ingenuity continues to “brown out.”

This means that the Helicopter Base Station on the Perseverance rover needs to search for Ingenuity’s signal each morning when the helicopter is predicted to wake up. Also, when the helicopter flies, it has to navigate difficult terrain that is relatively uncharted. It can also end up landing in spots that are surrounded by hazards.

Getting the frequent flyer card

Despite the challenging terrain, Ingenuity will also be flying a lot more in the coming days because it has to remain within range of the rover. It has an AutoNav feature that allows it to travel hundreds of metres each day.

Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to act as a communications relay between it and mission controllers here at JPL. If the rover gets too far ahead or disappears behind a hill, we could lose communications. The rover team has a job to do and a schedule to keep. So it’s imperative Ingenuity keeps up and is in the lead whenever possible,” explained Anderson.

Smartphone components, spacecraft performance

Interestingly, many of Ingenuity’s components are made out of off-the-shelf components, including smartphone processors and cameras. But despite this, the helicopter has worked for 23 months and 45 flights beyond its expected lifetime.

According to Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA, the team initially thought they would be lucky to complete five flights on Mars. In essence, Ingenuity has exceeded its expected life by more than ten times.

But going beyond expectations is not easy. Some of the helicopter’s components are showing signs of wear as the terrain are becoming more challenging.

“We have come so far, and we want to go farther. But we have known since the very beginning our time at Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now is something no one can predict at present. What I can predict is that when it does, we’ll have one heck of a party,” said Tzanetos in a press statement.

By testing Ingenuity’s limits, NASA engineers are gathering flight data that can be used by engineers working on designs for future Mars helicopters. These engineers include the people designing the Mars Sample Return campaign’s proposed Sample Recovery Helicopters.

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