NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will fly over the hills of Mars

Selfie of helicopter and rover

The rover and its support helicopter are heading towards the hills

The daring Mars helicopter is about to face its greatest challenge yet.

The Ingenuity drone, accompanying NASA’s Perseverance rover, will begin flying over the hills surrounding their exploration site on the Red Planet.

The two are currently on the floor of the Jezero crater, but the plan is for both to climb up and out of this bowl.

Ginny, as the drone is known, therefore needed to have software updates to allow it to navigate the incline.

“Up to this point, Ingenuity has always lived under the belief that Mars was completely flat, like a pancake,” chief pilot Håvard Grip told BBC News.

“It’s only now with these latest software updates that we’re able to tell Ingenuity that ‘no, it’s actually not flat; there are hills’.”

Ginny made history in 2021 by becoming the first vehicle to achieve powered flight on another world.

It was an up and down maneuver to an altitude of only 3m, but it proved the principle.

Since then, the helicopter has flown higher and higher on another 35 occasions.

Not bad for what was supposed to be just a quick tech demo. But the opportunities offered by a reconnaissance helicopter were simply too good for NASA to pass up.

Broken hardware

Ingenuity snapped this aerial shot of discarded hardware from Perseverance’s landing system

The drone now supports Perseverance by examining the road ahead, helping the wheeled robot and its “backseat drivers” on Earth to choose the right path.

It’s also doing science, taking aerial images of rock outcrops from multiple angles so researchers can build 3D models of interesting targets for further investigation.

But the future is about to get a lot more difficult. As soon as Perseverance has dropped some rock samples on the ground for later collection and returned to Earth via missions at the end of the decade, the rover will head for high ground. And Ingenuity will follow.

The pair will scale the 40m-high deposits of an ancient river delta feature, then make their way to the Jezero crater rim.

The newly installed software will allow the helicopter to make the necessary navigation corrections when the ground ahead rises.

It should also help with another problem: dangerous rocks on the ground upon landing.

Engineers on Earth currently analyze satellite imagery to find sites that are safe to touch. “But it’s harder to relate the orbital images to small rocks on the ground in the hills. That’s where this other feature comes into play, where right before landing, Ingenuity itself can take a look at the terrain and figure out where the rocks and avoid them,” explained Grip.

The chief pilot keeps a logbook in which he records all of Ginny’s flights. Now it’s full.

“We just wanted five times. We thought, well, a book with only five pages would look too silly. And so we put in a bunch more pages just to make it look more like a real book. But guess what? We ran out of pages Ingenuity made its 36th flight and, coincidentally, that flight also marked the threshold for Ingenuity to spend a full hour in the skies of Mars.”

Graphic showing NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter

Graphic showing NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter

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