Mars 2020

The Ingenuity Team Downloads the Final Data from the Mars Helicopter. The Mission is Over

I really can’t believe that the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars took its maiden voyage in April 2021. On the 16th April 2024, engineers at NASA have received the final batch of data from the craft which marks the final task of the team. Ingenuity’s work is not over though as it will remain on the surface collecting data. For the engineers at NASA, they have their sights set on Dragonfly, a new helicopter destined for Titan.

When Ingenuity took off on its maiden voyage it became the first powered craft to achieve flight on an alien world. It has completed 128.8 minutes of flight covering 17 kilometres. It has extra large rotor blades to achieve lift in the thin martian atmosphere and has performed excellently providing guidance and targets for the Perseverance Rover to study close up. 

Ingenuity helicopter

It’s surprising to think that Ingenuity was only ever designed to be a short-lived demonstration mission. Over a period of 30 days, Ingenuity was to perform five experimental test flights and operate over three years. Unfortunately a rather hard landing damaged its rotor blades rendering it unable to fly again. It’s now sat at Airfield Chi in the now named “Valinor Hills” area of Mars. The team gave the region the nickname as a homage to the final residence of the immortals in Lord of the Rings. 

With Ingenuity now unable to fly the team had sent a software update to direct it to continue to collect data even if the Rover is unavailable. This will mean that it will wake each morning, test the (non-flight) systems are operational, take a colour image of the surface and record the temperature. The team believe such long term data could help to inform martian weather studies and help future explorers. This is a long term purpose for Ingenuity and it has the capability to store data for 20 years! If system or battery failure occurs the data will still be securely stored. The only way to retrieve the data though, will be through another autonomous craft or a human visitor of the future. 

The success of Ingenuity paved the way for a new era of planetary exploration. Next up is Dragonfly, a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Costing a total of $3.35 billion across its entire lifecycle it will become the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. The probe will be managed by the Marshall Space Flight Centre but behind them is an international team from many different organisations including but not limited to Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland; Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania; Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in Paris; the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany; and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) in Tokyo.

Artist’s concept of Dragonfly soaring over the dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Dragonfly is slated to arrive in 2034. It’s mission will be to visit multiple locations, sampling the minerals to search for prebiotic chemical processes. It will also look for chemical signatures that indicate water-based and/or hydrocarbon-based life. Unlike Ingenuity, its rotors are similar size to those you would find on a drone on Earth. The atmosphere is thick and so there is no need for super-sized blades. 

Source : NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Team Says Goodbye … for Now and NASA’s Dragonfly Rotorcraft Mission to Saturn’s Moon Titan Confirmed

Mark Thompson

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