Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s first-of-its-kind Ingenuity Mars Helicopter provided scientists with up-close images of sand dunes, rock ridges and other geographic features of interest during its successful ninth flight last week, according to JPL.
Originally tasked merely with proving powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere was possible, the experimental 4-pound autonomous helicopter has since transitioned into a mission of science.
During its most recent flight on July 5, Ingenuity took close-up, high-resolution pictures of several features on the Red Planet that cannot be accessed by the helicopter’s six-wheeled partner, the Perseverance Mars Rover, JPL said in a written statement.
They included a sand dune field and rock ridges that would have been far too dangerous for Perseverance to venture onto, according to JPL Perseverance Driver, Mobility Expert and lead on the rover’s AutoNav autonomous navigation system Oliver Toupet.
“Sand is a big concern,” he said. “If we drive downhill into a dune, we could embed ourselves into it and not be able to get back out.”
Perseverance’s AutoNav system is highly capable of detecting and avoiding rocks and other hazards, but it can’t detect sand, according to the statement. “So human drivers still need to define ‘keep-out zones’ around areas that could entrap the rover.”
An area of exposed bedrock spotted by Ingenuity during its recent flight has also caught the attention of scientists. Sandy conditions there also preclude a visit from the rover.
A feature dubbed “Raised Ridges”’ has long interested researchers looking for signs of past life on the Red Planet, but could only view photos of it taken from orbit until the recent Ingenuity flight.
“The color images from Ingenuity, taken from a height of around 33 feet, offer the rover team much greater detail than they get from the [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter] images they typically use for route planning,” the JPL statement said.
The Perseverance team plans to send the rover to pay a visit, JPL Project Scientist Ken Williford said.
“Our current plan is to visit Raised Ridges and investigate it close-up,” he said. “The helicopter’s images are by far better in resolution than the orbital ones we were using. Studying these will allow us to ensure that visiting these ridges is important to the team.”
More information on the Perseverance Mars Rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopters is available online at jpl.nasa.gov/missions/mars-2020-perseverance-rover.