Our Space

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its left Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This is one still frame from a sequence captured by the camera while taking video. 

In between a few billionaires enjoying short-term sub-orbital space flights and preparations to send the next Boeing Starline capsule into space; between the ailing Hubble Space Telescope and the continued assembly of NASA’s next Moon rocket a small helicopter is frolicking about on the surface of Mars.

All right, it may be time to remind ourselves that the Ingenuity Mars helicopter is an emotionless machine that cannot feel joy the way we do. But time and time again the engineers and scientists who develop, build, program and operate those machines have attested to how deeply connected they feel to those machines. To those people, the rovers and other spacecraft are their own eyes and ears, brains and hands, just with a bit of a time-lag between thought, action and the flush of joy from a successful operation.

And while the helicopter itself may not feel those emotions, the folks back on Earth certainly do.

Since its landing in Jezero Crater on Mars earlier this year the Ingenuity helicopter has exceeded all expectations. True to the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (home base of Yours Truly) it has Dared Might Things, representing its team at home. Along for the ride with the Perseverance Mars rover, Ingenuity was originally a mere technology demonstrations: all it was supposed to do was fly a few short hops to ascertain that powered flight was indeed possible in the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet, test out various patterns and work in conjunction with onboard cameras to figure out a flight path.

Meanwhile, Perseverance waited patiently (again, let’s anthropomorphize here a little bit) for the test cycles to be complete so it could get going on its own science mission goals. Ingenuity was expected to be left behind, its mission accomplished.

But as it turns out, Ingenuity is rather scrappy, and true to space exploration fashion, if it ain’t broke you don’t shut it down. For now the helicopter is an aerial companion to the ground-bound rover, flying straight up and ahead to document the terrain and sending surveillance images back to Earth via the rover and the spacecraft in Mars orbit. The teams on Earth are using those images not just for flight trajectories, but also to identify potential science targets. Perseverance has its own AI (artificial intelligence) on board, so it can actually plot much of its own course and avoid treacherous obstacles such as rocks and boulders.

And back on Earth there’s plenty of cheering going on: every new flight is celebrated like parents would their baby’s first steps. And so at the moment there’s a lot of aerial hopping and driving, leap-frogging through the red Martian dust.

Ingenuity can never stray too far from the rover — it depends on it for flight instructions via uploads, and sharing aerial photography via download. Since it has its own solar panel its power supply is completely independent from Perseverance. All it requires is a communications link, and at this point sharing the data stream doesn’t appear to be a problem. Perseverance, of course, does not need the helicopter at all; its own AI, coupled with instructions from Earth and detailed terrain information from Mars orbiters, is quite enough. And yet, there’s an utterly charming relationship between the two machines which plays out entirely between the humans left behind on Earth.

Of course the smart folks at JPL are never ones to rest on their laurels for very long: having sufficient reasons for the benefit of an aerial companion for future Mars missions the next helicopters are already being planned. Maybe they will be bigger. They might have video capabilities or microphones. Maybe they have more substantial power supplies for longer flights to cover greater distances. Maybe they will be able to retrieve samples from difficult to reach places like steep cliffs or deep canyon floors. Maybe they have tools on board. And maybe they can talk directly to the Mars orbiters, thus effectively giving us two Mars missions for the price of one launch. The Martian sky is quite literally the limit!

And while we’re dreaming, why stop at two? Perhaps future rovers contain swarms of smaller helpers, both hovering and ground-based. We already have technology demonstrations of rovers that uncouple one axle and send it over the edge of a cliff tethered to the main unit. Truly mind-boggling stuff!

In the not so distant future, when human explorers will travel to Mars, they will have a proven arsenal of helpers assisting them, both on the ground and in the air. Until then, keep up with our intrepid duo and all the other NASA Mars missions at https://mars.nasa.gov/ 

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com   

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