The Future of Mars Exploration Belongs to Helicopters

NASA's Mars Helicopters: Present, Future, and Proposed: A family portrait of Mars helicopters - Ingenuity, Sample Recovery Helicopter, and a future Mars Science Helicopter concept. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Even though there’s no firm date for a Mars sample return mission, the Perseverance rover is busy collecting rock samples and caching them for retrieval. We’ve known of the future Mars sample return mission for a while now, and as time goes on, we’re learning more details.

The latest development concerns helicopters. With Ingenuity’s success, NASA has decided that the sample return mission will take two helicopters.

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A Small Piece of “Foreign Object Debris” Fell off Ingenuity’s Leg During its 33rd Flight

A small piece of foreign object debris (FOD) is seen in this image from the navigation camera of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during its 33rd flight on Mars on Sept 24, 2022. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

We hope this is just as inconsequential as having a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, but images from the Ingenuity helicopter show it had a piece of debris fluttering from its leg during its most recent flight. A blog post from NASA said a small piece of foreign object debris (FOD) was seen in footage from the Mars helicopter’s navigation camera (Navcam) for a portion of its 33rd flight on September 24, 2022.

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The Mars Sample Return Mission Will Take Two Helicopters to the Red Planet to Help Retrieve Samples

NASA’s upcoming Mars Sample Return mission plan just received a glow-up: it will now carry a pair of twin helicopters, each capable of retrieving samples and delivering them to the ascent vehicle for return to Earth.

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Ingenuity has Lost its Sense of Direction, but It’ll Keep on Flying

This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The location, "Airfield D" (the fourth airfield), is just east of the "Séítah" geologic unit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS.

Things are getting challenging for the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. The latest news from Håvard Grip, its chief pilot, is that the “Little Chopper that Could” has lost its sense of direction thanks to a failed instrument. Never mind that it was designed to make only a few flights, mostly in Mars spring. Or that it’s having a hard time staying warm now that winter is coming. Now, one of its navigation sensors, called an inclinometer, has stopped working. It’s not the end of the world, though. “A nonworking navigation sensor sounds like a big deal – and it is – but it’s not necessarily an end to our flying at Mars,” Grip wrote on the Mars Helicopter blog on June 6. It turns out that the controllers have options.

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Martian Dust is Starting to Darken Ingenuity’s Solar Panels

This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The location, "Airfield D" (the fourth airfield), is just east of the "Séítah" geologic unit. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS.

Like every solar-panel-powered vehicle on Mars, maintaining electrical power always becomes an issue at some point in the mission. Last week, mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory lost contact with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. While they were able to re-establish communications, which is done through the Perseverance rover, engineers know that keeping Ingenuity’s batteries charged is going to be increasingly difficult as the dark winter is on the way to Jezero Crater.

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Ingenuity is now Scouting Ahead of Perseverance, Helping it Navigate Difficult Terrain

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter recently surveyed a ridgeline near the ancient river delta in Mars’ Jezero Crater at request of the Perseverance rover’s science team. On the left is the full image Ingenuity acquired of the ridgeline on April 23, 2022, during its 27th flight. The science team calls the line of rocky outcrops running from the upper left to middle right of the main image “Fortun Ridge.” Enlarged at right is a close-up of one of the ridgeline’s rocky outcrops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is providing scientists a look at what is on the road ahead for the Perseverance rover. And acting as a scout, Ingenuity can tell the team what places to avoid, too.

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Amazing! Ingenuity Helicopter Flies to the Perseverance Backshell and Parachute to See Them Close Up

This image of the Perseverance rover's parachute and backshell was taken by the Ingenuity helicopter during its 26th flight on April 22, 2022. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

You may recall we reported earlier this month that the Perseverance rover finally spotted its parachute and backshell off in the distance. This is the hardware that safely brought the rover to Mars surface on February 18, 2021.

But now, the incredible Ingenuity helicopter has snapped better images of those items, while it was hovering in the Martian air during its 26th flight.

And what a mess! The poor backshell crashed to the surface, splitting into pieces.  

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What a Feat! Ingenuity Photographed From Space

It seems like only months ago that the Perseverance Rover landed in Jezero Crater on Mars. But in fact, it’s been there longer than a year. Perseverance has had company during this time; its sidekick, the Ingenuity helicopter, completed 23 flights in Mars’ thin atmosphere so far.

The HiRISE camera on the MRO has captured an image of the rover and the tiny helicopter on Mars as it rests on the surface.

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How Time Flies: Perseverance and Ingenuity Have Been on Mars for a Year

What a year it’s been — Earth year, that is!

The dramatic touchdown on Mars for the Perseverance rover and the stowaway Ingenuity helicopter on February 18, 2021 was a bright moment in a tumultuous year here on Earth. And even though the pandemic meant that many people were watching the event from home – even some of the Mars rover team – NASA made sure to share the event as widely as possible.

Here’s a video highlight of that day, with pictures and video from both planets, and watching it brings smiles, goosebumps tears of joy. Of course, the incredible video we received of the landing from from the rover itself – especially the sky-crane lowering Perseverance to the planet’s surface — is nothing short of stunning.

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Glowing Helicopters on Mars

This is an artist’s concept of a glow surrounding a drone at Mars during flight. The glow, exaggerated for visibility, might happen if the drone’s spinning rotor blades generate an electric field that causes electric currents to flow in the Martian air around the craft. Although the currents generated by the drone in the atmosphere are small, they might be large enough to cause the air around the blades and other parts of the craft to glow a blue-purple color. Credits: NASA/Jay Friedlander

If the Ingenuity helicopter would fly at night on Mars, its very possible the whirring rotors would create enough static electricity in the extremely dry Martian atmosphere to cause the air around the craft to glow.

“The faint glow would be most visible during evening hours when the background sky is darker,” said William Farrell, from Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of a paper on this topic. “NASA’s experimental Ingenuity helicopter does not fly during this time, but future drones could be cleared for evening flight and look for this glow.”

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