The valiant Mars Helicopter is about to take on its biggest challenge yet.
The Ingenuity drone, which accompanies NASA’s Perseverance rover, will begin to fly over the hills surrounding their exploration site on the red planet.
The pair are currently on the floor of Jezero Crater, but the plan is for them to climb up and out of this bowl.
Ginny, as the drone is called, therefore had to have software updates to allow it to navigate the slopes.
“Until now, Ingenuity has always believed that Mars was completely flat, like a pancake,” chief pilot Håvard Grip told BBC News.
“It’s only now with these most recent software updates that we can 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 at an altitude of only 3m, but it proved the principle.
Since then, the helicopter has flown higher and further 35 times.
Not bad for what was supposed to be just a short tech demo. But the opportunities presented by a reconnaissance helicopter were simply too good for NASA to pass up.
The drone now supports Perseverance by examining the route to follow, helping the wheeled robot and its “rear drivers” on Earth to choose the right path.
It also does science, taking aerial photos of rock outcrops from multiple angles so researchers can create 3D models of interesting targets for further investigation.
But the future is about to get a whole lot tougher. As soon as Perseverance deposits rock samples on the ground for later collection and return to Earth by missions at the end of the decade, the rover will head for the higher ground. And Ingenuity will follow.
The duo will scale the 40m high deposits of an ancient river delta, then head to the rim of the Jezero crater.
The newly installed software will allow the helicopter to make the necessary navigation corrections when the ground in front of it rises.
This should also help solve another problem: dangerous rocks on the ground when landing.
Engineers back on Earth are currently analyzing satellite images to find safe sites to land on. “But it’s harder to correlate orbital imagery to small rocks on the ground in the hills. That’s where that other feature comes in, where, just before landing, Ingenuity itself can take a peek. ‘eye on the ground and figure out where the rocks are and avoid them,’ explained Grip.
The chief pilot keeps a logbook in which to record all of Ginny’s flights. It is now complete.
“We were only going to fly five times. We thought, well, a book of just five pages was going to look too silly. And so we put in a bunch of extra pages just to make it look more like a real one. But guess what? We’re out of pages. Ingenuity completed its 36th flight, and coincidentally, that flight also marked the milestone for Ingenuity having spent a full hour in the skies of Mars.