Wednesday, November 30

A software update prepares Ingenuity for its most dangerous mission on Mars

Software updates have become crucial for NASA’s helicopter on Mars. Thanks to this resource, the companion of the Perseverance rover has managed to complete more than 20 flights, when it was expected that it would only make three. Now, the small aircraft is preparing for another challenge that was not in the original plan, and that will extend its operations until September: fly over Jezero Crater, a dangerous area full of cliffsmounds of sand and uneven terrain.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team has deployed several upgrades since Ingenuity arrived on the red planet with Perseverance. Before the helicopter lifted off the ground for the first time, they had to reinstall the flight control software millions of miles away to fix a problem with the script’s timer that caused the system to go into “safe mode.”

After the first flights, JPL also sent upgrades that improved helicopter performance on Mars. The laboratory explains that they increased the general safety of Ingenuity by reducing navigation errors, they eliminated the maximum altitude restriction programmed at 15 meters (a feature that will allow more complex missions to be carried out), they gave the rotors the ability to change speed in the air and improved the system that analyzes terrain conditions during flight to take more precise actions.

Ingenuity and her next ‘adventure’ in Jezero

But there are more updates on the way. Upcoming software changes will equip the helicopter with new terrain elevation maps in the navigation filter and the ability to reduce risk on landings. These improvements, added to the previous ones, will allow Ingenuity to take an active role in your next mission as Perseverance’s helper. The first task given no earlier than March 19 will be to help determine which path the rover should take on its mission through the dry channels of the river that once flowed.

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Jero Mars 1

The challenge is enormous as Ingenuity’s new area of ​​operations is completely different from the relatively flat terrain on which it had been operating. According to NASA, it is an area formed by a fan-shaped fluvial delta that rises more than 40 meters above the floor of the Jezero crater. “The inclined and horizontal layering there is what a geologist would expect to see in a river delta on Earth,” the agency notes of the area filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, jutting boulders and sand-filled pockets that they could stop the rover in its tracks or make it difficult for the helicopter to land.

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Perseverance’s exploration of the delta promises to reveal a wealth of geological data, including evidence that could confirm that microscopic life existed on Mars millions of years ago. The helicopter, in addition to helping the rover to reach that place by marking the way, could capture images of areas difficult to access for the vehicle NASA or, perhaps, exploring landing zones and storage sites for the Mars Sample Return program, which is scheduled to start in 2026 and aims to collect rock samples and return them to Earth.

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