After successfully proving that it was possible to fly on Mars, NASA announced on Friday that the mission of the small Ingenuity helicopter was extended by an additional month, to make it the companion of the rover Perseverance.
It will now be responsible for supporting the rover in its main mission, the quest for ancient life on Mars, for example by going to explore places of scientific interest, inaccessible by driving, or by locating the safest path.
“Ingenuity will move from a technology demonstration mission, where we prove the technical capabilities of the helicopter, to an operations demonstration mission, where we gather information on the helicopter’s ability to provide operational support.” at Perseverance, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s division on the study of planets, told a press conference.
Perhaps one day, human explorers will also be accompanied by flying devices to help them, and this is also what this new phase will allow to test, she explained.
“After 30 days, we will assess where we are,” she added, the US Space Agency not ruling out extending the experiment further thereafter.
Be careful, however, Ingenuity “was not really designed for a long mission”, delayed Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the machine, pointing in particular the harmful effect of repeated cycles of freezing and thawing.
It will also be necessary that Ingenuity does not crash, while its flights will be more and more perilous.
So far, he has done them all brilliantly, including the fourth Friday, the longest so far: 266 meters in total, in 117 seconds.
The purpose of this flight was in particular to locate a new place where it can land safely very soon. So far, it has always returned to its original runway, but that will not be the case on the fifth flight, which is expected to take place in about a week. This time, Ingenuity will fly without making the return trip, preceding Perseverance.
NASA then anticipates two other flights over the 30 days.
– Help with rock samples –
The helicopter’s mission was initially scheduled to end after a month, as NASA then expected to roll the rover fast and far to reach an interesting area to take rock samples.
Ingenuity could not then have kept pace, having to recharge its solar panels between each flight.
But the researchers finally decided otherwise: “We really want to spend an important time where we are,” said Ken Farley, scientist for Perseverance.
They think they will find in the area “rocks which are probably the oldest material present on the floor of the crater” Jezero, where Perseverance landed last February, as well as “rocks which were deposited in the middle of the lake which one day filled “this crater, he explained.
“This is the kind of environment we think is most habitable by organisms that might have existed on Mars billions of years ago,” he added.
The first sample should be taken in July.
For the first time, Perseverance will collect samples that must be brought back to Earth by a subsequent mission, in several years.