WASHINGTON – As the Mars Helicopter continues to perform far beyond expectations, lessons learned from that rover are being incorporated into NASA's evolving plans to return Mars samples.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced on January 2 that the Ingenuity Mars helicopter has completed its 70th orbit.y Flight on December 22nd. The helicopter flew 260 meters during the 133-second flight, and has now covered about 17 kilometers since its maiden flight in April 2021.
Ingenuity is included in the Mars 2020 mission as a technology demonstrator with the intention of performing no more than five flights. Ingenuity's success during those flights led NASA to continue flying the helicopter, converting it into a reconnaissance rover for Perseverance.
Ingenuity's success has also influenced NASA's Mars Sample Return (MSR) plans. The agency, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, announced in July 2022 that it will include two Ingenuity-based helicopters on a future lander that will take samples collected by Perseverance and launch them into orbit. These helicopters will serve as a backup if Perseverance itself cannot deliver samples to the lander by transporting samples from the surface cache to the lander.
Engineers at JPL are adapting Ingenuity's design for the MSR. Lessons learned from flying Ingenuity are “the ground truth that we use to design sample retrieval helicopters for the next mission,” Teddy Tzanitos, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said during a Dec. 15 event at the National Air and Space Museum. Udvar-Hazy Center where NASA donated to the museum a prototype of the Creation used in ground tests.
This ground truth includes improved modeling of both the aerodynamics of the helicopter and its thermal environment, ensuring the helicopter is not exposed to extreme cold at night, he said. “It's very difficult on Mars for such a small rover,” he said.
Meanwhile, NASA is continuing its review of the overall architecture for the MSR after an independent review concluded that the current plan will not be ready on schedule and will be much more expensive than previously expected. It is not clear what changes, if any, might result in the helicopters currently planned for the MSR.
The effort is making “good progress,” Eric Ianson, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in an interview during the event. He said efforts remain on a timeline announced in the fall that called for work on a revised architecture for the MSR to be completed in March, but he did not provide additional details about the ongoing review.
NASA announced in November that it would slow work on the MSR, not only because of an architecture review, but also because of budget concerns. The Senate's appropriations bill would provide MSR with less than a third of its roughly $950 million request, and with the agency acting on a continuing decision to fund programs at 2023 levels through early February, NASA wanted to avoid a “worst-case scenario.” of running out of money if the Senate bill is eventually enacted.
Budget concerns are not limited to MSR, said Ianson, who also serves as deputy director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. “We're looking at all of our assignments and making sure to look at the conservative numbers within the language of the Senate, and trying to make sure we're not out on our skis,” he said.
Tzantos said he was happy to work on another helicopter so soon after building Ingenuity. “We all imagined while working on Ingenuity that our children’s generation or our grandchildren’s generation would build the second iteration,” he said. “We never imagined that while Ingenuity was still flying, we would be working on the next version of helicopters for Mars.”
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