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Mars helicopter gets a new job: robot scout

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been doing such a great job on Mars that mission managers have decided not to kill it off. Instead, the solar-powered rotorcraft will be given a new assignment: scouting from the air as NASA’s Perseverance rover moves into new territory.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase to the new ops demo phase, where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used, and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said today during a news briefing held to lay out the helicopter’s new mission.

Ingenuity rode to a February landing on Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly, on an $85 million technology demonstration mission that’s a subset of the rover’s $2.7 billion, two-year-long primary mission.

Perseverance’s main tasks are to survey the terrain of Mars’ Jezero Crater, which was thought to have once been the site of an ancient lake, and store up samples for later return to Earth.

NASA planned to try out the solar-powered mini-helicopter on five test flights, merely to prove out the technology for conducting aerial missions in Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. After the first flight, Aung hinted that the final flight just might push the envelope far enough to break the 4-pound flying machine.

But things have gone so well during the flights to date — including today’s fourth flight in the series — that the mission team is extending Ingenuity’s mission for an operational demonstration.

During today’s 117-second foray, Ingenuity traveled about 436 feet south of the rover to collect aerial imagery of a potential new landing zone, then flew back to its home base — which has been dubbed Wright Brothers Field. Sometime in the next week or two, Ingenuity will use its fifth flight to settle onto its new landing zone. Its new scouting mission will begin in earnest with the sixth flight.

The previously established mission plan called for the rover team to hold up on other science operations for 30 days while the Ingenuity team conducted the tech demo flights. But thanks to the change of plan, Perseverance is on the move again. The rover drove 33 feet on April 26 to identify targets for sampling.

“With the short drive, we have already begun our move south toward a location the science team believes is worthy of investigation and our first sampling,” said Ken Farley, the rover team’s project scientist.

In the months ahead, Perseverance will look for scientifically interesting rock outcrops along a mile-long patch of crater floor to the south. Farley said the rover would then probably head to the north and the west, toward Jezero Crater’s fossil river delta.

Along the way, Ingenuity could take short flights to scout out the best route for the rover, check out science targets in advance and gather data for digital elevation maps. Current plans call for the helicopter to wind down its operations by the end of August, so that the rover can wrap up its first research season and hunker down by mid-October. That’s when the sun will block the path for communication between Mars and Earth for a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, we’re likely to be treated to plenty of unprecedented views of Mars and its robotic residents. For example, here’s a preliminary look at Ingenuity’s takeoff today:

Check out this shadow selfie movie produced from imagery that Ingenuity captured during its third flight on April 25:

A color snapshot from Ingenuity, also taken during the third flight, shows the Perseverance rover in the upper left corner:

On April 6, Perseverance extended its long robotic arm, turned its WATSON camera around and snapped this selfie with Ingenuity in the background, about 13 feet away:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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