NASA’s Mars helicopter nailed its 10th flight – double what engineers had hoped Ingenuity would do

Mars ingenuity helicopter nasa perseverance rover
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, on April 5, 2021.

  • NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completed its 10th flight on Mars Saturday.
  • That’s twice the number of flights that NASA originally planned for the little drone.
  • Engineers thought Ingenuity would crash much earlier, but it’s now on an extended mission.
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The “little helicopter that could” has done it again.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, a tissue-box-sized rotorcraft that landed with the Perseverance rover in February, completed its 10th flight over the red planet on Saturday.

Each Ingenuity flight has been more daring than the last. So Saturday’s flight was likely the helicopter’s riskiest yet: If everything went according to plan, Ingenuity climbed 40 feet in the air, then headed south-by-southwest toward a collection of rock features called “Raised Ridges,” before looping back around to a landing zone about 310 feet west of its initial takeoff spot.

Before Saturday, Ingenuity had already flown nearly one mile in total, so its 10th flight helped it hit that threshold.

The flight should have lasted about 2 minutes, 45 seconds. During that time, Ingenuity is expected to have visited 10 distinct waypoints, snapping photos along the way.

ingenuity flight 10 path
An annotated image of Mars’ Jezero Crater depicts the ground track and waypoints for Ingenuity’s 10th flight.

Flight 10 is a significant milestone, since Ingenuity has now flown twice as many times as NASA engineers originally planned. NASA expected Ingenuity to crash on its fourth or fifth flight as it tested the limits of its speed and stamina.

But Ingenuity has continued to exceed expectations. Even when a glitch led the helicopter to wobble mid-air in May during its sixth flight, it still managed to touch down safely.

The drone started out as a technology demonstration, but NASA gave Ingenuity a secondary mission in late May after its fourth flight. Since then, Ingenuity has started scouting new Martian terrain and testing operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. In its recent flights, Ingenuity has explored unsurveyed areas of Mars’ Jezero Crater – a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago – landing in new spots each time.

The uneven landscape is a challenge for Ingenuity, since rocky or rippled land can distort its field of view, causing it to veer in the wrong direction. Ingenuity’s ninth flight earlier this month was a “nail-biter,” NASA scientists said, since the helicopter had to cross over particularly treacherous terrain.

Ingenuity helicopter mars first flight Taking Off and Landing
The Perseverance rover captured footage of Ingenuity taking off and landing for its first flight on April 19, 2021.

Ingenuity is still proving itself useful on Mars, but its future is uncertain

In Ingenuity’s first four flights, the rotorcraft landed in the same spot it lifted off. Its fifth flight led it to touch down in a new airfield that it had previously flown over, photographed, and mapped. But these recent flights have sent Ingenuity traveling south over uncharted territory.

NASA engineers haven’t said when Ingenuity’s mission will end, but the helicopter could keep flying as long as it stays alive and doesn’t interfere with the science work of the Perseverance rover.

ingenuity flight seven shadow
Ingenuity captured a photo of its shadow during its seventh flight on Mars.

Perseverance is combing Jezero Crater in search of potential fossils of ancient alien microbes. Ingenuity’s new operations can assist with that mission: The helicopter can scout and map terrain, spot promising areas for study from the air, and fly to spots the rover can’t reach.

NASA scientists are particularly curious about “Raised Ridges,” since water may have once flowed there. During its ninth flight, Ingenuity also snapped color images of intriguing rock outcrops that Perseverance might examine later.

“We’re hoping the color images will provide the closest look yet at ‘Pilot Pinnacle,’ a location featuring outcrops that some team members think may record some of the deepest water environments in old Lake Jezero,” NASA scientists wrote in a recent blog post.

It’s possible, though, that Perseverance’s tight schedule won’t allow it to visit the rocks, “so Ingenuity may offer the only opportunity to study these deposits in any detail,” the scientists said.

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NASA is giving SpaceX $178 million to launch its mission to a Jupiter moon that could harbor alien life

europa clipper illustration shows spacecraft flying above icy moon with jupiter in background
This illustration, updated in December 2020, depicts NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft.

NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch its next alien-hunting mission to a Jupiter moon.

The mission, called Europa Clipper, is designed to fly past Jupiter’s moon Europa 45 times, getting as close as 16 miles above its surface. Scientists believe the moon conceals a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and alien life could thrive deep within it.

NASA announced Friday that it set a date for the mission and awarded the $178 million launch contract to SpaceX. Now Europa Clipper is scheduled to blast off aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.

falcon heavy rocket launches engines firing through grey skies
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches on a demonstration flight from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Europa Clipper’s main objective is to determine whether Europa could host life at all. It aims to take high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, chart the composition and thickness of its icy crust, look for lakes below the surface, and measure the depth and saltiness of the ocean below.

The spacecraft could even fly through plumes of water vapor that shoot through Europa’s ice, since those are known to crest more than 100 miles above the surface. This water seems to come from the ocean below, and it could contain signs of life.

The reason Europa can keep water in a liquid state is that it follows an oval-shaped orbit around Jupiter. The giant planet’s gravity stretches and relaxes the moon, and that friction warms Europa’s deep underground salt water, keeping it liquid. The warmth from that process could also allow the moon to harbor deep-sea ecosystems.

SpaceX is becoming a NASA favorite

SpaceX, the rocket company Elon Musk founded in 2002, is not in the business of studying other planets. But it is in the business of launching things for NASA, and the agency is awarding the company more and more opportunities to do so.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk smiles in front of a blue background
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship flew NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. It was the first time the US has launched its own astronauts since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. SpaceX is now regularly ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to turn its in-development Starship megarocket into a lunar lander. The agency said Starship is set to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 (though that timeline may be unrealistic). That would be the first human moon landing since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.

The decision prompted challenges from competing rocket makers Blue Origin and Dynetics since the original plan was for NASA to pick two of the three companies for lunar-lander contracts. The protests required NASA to order that SpaceX stop work on the lunar lander.

SpaceX didn’t win its new Europa Clipper contract without contest, either. According to Eric Berger, a senior space editor for Ars Technica, Congress has spent years urging NASA to launch the mission aboard its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. But legislators finally relented due to delays in the launch system’s development, its high cost, and a recent technical issue that would require $1 billion to correct, Berger reported.

According to Berger, NASA could save nearly $2 billion by launching the mission aboard Falcon Heavy instead of SLS.

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NASA’s Perseverance rover is about to attempt a supersonic plunge to Mars, complete with a jetpack landing

mars rover perseverance helicoper ingenuity
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

NASA is about to accomplish an unprecedented feat: The agency’s Perseverance Mars rover is set to film its own high-stakes landing.

The vehicle has almost reached its destination. On February 18, after nearly seven months and 300 million miles of space travel, the robot is slated to to plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere, deploy a parachute and a jetpack, then gently land in an ancient lake bed.

Once set up there, it will search for mineral deposits from an old lake, which could contain signs of ancient microbial life. The rover is programmed to cache samples of Martian rock and soil so that a future mission can carry them back to Earth for scientists to study.

But first, the rover must land successfully.

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing. “Success is never assured and that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest, heaviest, and most complicated rover we’ve ever built to the most dangerous site we’ve ever attempted to land at.”

A series of precise, automated maneuvers must go exactly right to safely deliver Perseverance to its destination. There’s no room for error.

That’s why aerospace engineers have a special nickname for this phase of a Mars mission: “seven minutes of terror.”

mars perseverance rover nasa entry descent landing separation
This illustration shows the Perseverance rover casting off its spacecraft’s cruise stage, minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere.

For Perseverance, this process will be all the more terrifying because of its landing site. Mars’ Jezero Crater is a dried-up lake bed rich with exposed layers of ancient rock, which could hold remnants of past microbial life. Steep cliffs run through the middle of the landing site, along with sand dunes and boulders. 

“Jezero Crater is a great place, magnificent place for science,” Chen said. “But when I look at it from a landing perspective, I see danger.”

If Perseverance arrives safely, however, it will then beam back the first video footage of a landing on another planet. High-definition cameras and microphones on the rover should record the whole thing, and NASA has said it will make the footage available later.

“We’re really looking forward to bringing everyone for the ride,” Chen said.

A parachute and a jetpack will slow Perseverance’s plummet

A NASA animation shows what the Perseverance landing should look like if all goes well:

The illustration below breaks down each step of that process.

“We’ve got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars, going from 13,000 mph to zero in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing,” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer of the Perseverance mission, said in a 2012 NASA-JPL video about the Curiosity rover (which is still going strong on Mars). “The computer has to do it all by itself with no help from the ground. If any one thing doesn’t work just right, it’s game over.”

mars perseverance rover nasa entry descent landing parachute jetpack diagram
An illustration depicts some of the milestones of Perseverance’s 7-minute descent to the Martian surface.

The first step in Perseverance’s landing process is for the spacecraft that’s carried it 300 million miles to drop its cargo: a top-shaped capsule with the rover inside. This entry capsule will succumb to Mars’ gravity and plummet towards the planet, protecting Perseverance with a heat shield.

mars perseverance rover landing entry descent nasa
An illustration shows the spacecraft carrying NASA’s Perseverance rover as it plows through the Martian atmosphere.

The capsule will plow through the Martian atmosphere at over 12,000 mph, and its shield should deflect material that’s been super-heated by that extreme speed. The outside of the heat shield will get as hot as 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. This will cause it to streak across the Martian sky like a bright meteor.

Mars’ atmosphere is about 1% as thick as ours on Earth, but it should still slow the capsule down.

mars 2020 perseverance rover aeroshell atmospheric entry plasma 7 minutes terror animation nasa jpl 1
An illustration of a NASA Mars rover entering the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Its heat shield is designed to withstand temperatures of more than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The capsule must use its thrusters to steer itself toward the landing target, since pockets of air with varying density can tilt it off-course.

Once it’s slowed to twice the speed of sound, Perseverance will deploy a 70-foot-wide parachute. Then the capsule will jettison its heat shield, clearing the way for the rover’s radar system to survey the land below. An autopilot-like navigation system should kick in to reconfigure the vehicle’s trajectory toward the landing site.

mars perseverance rover nasa entry descent landing parachute
An illustration shows the Perseverance rover deploying a supersonic parachute before landing.

That system, called “terrain-relative navigation,” compares what the rover’s cameras see to an onboard map of the Martian surface, built from satellite imagery. It should recognize and avoid the cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields that litter Jezero Crater.

Perseverance’s supersonic parachute can only slow its descent to about 150 mph – as fast as a skydiver plummeting to Earth with no parachute. That’s why NASA engineers also equipped the rover with a jetpack.

About a mile above the Martian surface, the jetpack will ignite its engines, with the rover attached to its underside.

mars perseverance rover nasa jetpack entry descent landing arrival
A jetpack, with the Perseverance rover secured to its underbelly, flies to a safe landing spot in Jezero Crater.

The jetpack will separate from the remaining parts of the entry capsule and fly Perseverance to a safe spot identified by the terrain-relative navigation. By the time the rover reaches its landing place, its speed should have slowed to about 1.5 mph.

mars perseverance rover entry descent landing jetpack nasa
An artist’s concept shows of the sky crane lowering NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

Very slowly, the jetpack will unspool 25-foot-long nylon cords that will lower Perseverance until its wheels touch the ground.

mars perseverance rover nasa landing jezero crater
An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars.

A few minutes later, mission controllers should get the signal that the rover touched down.

After that, assuming everything has gone right, the rover will spend a few months checking and calibrating its scientific instruments. Then it will release a helicopter from its belly and turn its cameras to the drone as it lifts off for the first-ever controlled flight on another planet.

Then the rover will continue on its core mission: searching for ancient rocks that could hold hints of microbial alien life.

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China’s new Mars probe took its first photo of the red planet as the mission prepares to make history

china mars tianwen-1 mission photo arrival orbit
A black-and-white image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by China on February 5, 2021.

China’s first interplanetary probe is now so close to Mars that its camera can make out craters across the red planet’s surface.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, a suite of robots launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in July, has spent the last six months speeding through space. At just 2.2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from its destination, the probe beamed back its very first photo: a black-and-white snapshot of Mars.

The CNSA released the picture on Friday. In a press release, the agency said that the probe had fired an engine as part of its fourth “orbital correction,” or adjustment of its path through space. Now Martian gravity should pull the mission into just the right orbit around the planet.

The five-ton probe is set to carry out a braking operation to slow its high-speed spaceflight and slip into orbit around Mars on February 10. Following that, the spacecraft will spend a couple months surveying a landing site at Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock.

The orbiter is supposed to drop a lander-rover combo to the planet’s surface in May, the CNSA said. If the rocket-powered descent goes smoothly, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp  for the rover to roll onto Martian soil. The rover’s radar system will help Chinese researchers seek out underground pockets of liquid water. (The orbiter, meanwhile, will continue circling the red planet and relaying data to Earth.)

Such ancient water reservoirs could be remnants of a time billions of years ago when Mars flowed with rivers, courtesy of a much thicker and protective atmosphere than exists today. During this era, Mars somewhat resembled Earth, and scientists think it may have hosted alien microbial life. Any underground pockets of water, shielded from the sun’s unfiltered radiation and the vacuum of space, might still harbor such species, if they exist.

If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into orbit, drop a landing platform, and deploy a rover all in one expedition. It will also mark China’s first landing on another planet and help the nation prepare a future mission that might return a Martian rock or dirt sample to Earth in the late 2020s.

china mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhua
An illustration of China’s planned Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, or HX-1. Here a rover is shown leaving a lander to explore the Martian surface.

As of Friday, the CNSA said Tianwen-1 is just about 1.1 million kilometers (680,000 miles) from its destination.

Two other missions which launched around the same time as Tianwen-1 – NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe – are also arriving at Mars in the next two weeks. All three missions are taking advantage of a window when Mars passes close to Earth, decreasing travel time and cost.

China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian spacecraft that was meant to carry it there stalled in Earth’s orbit and never left.

Tianwen-1 is the closest China has ever gotten to another planet. With luck – and the right engineering to weather a harrowing “seven minutes of terror” as it plunges toward Mars – it will reach the surface.

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