Having eyes in the sky is useful for a variety of activities. Everything from agriculture to military operations has benefited from the boom in drone use as the tiny airplanes track the progress of plant diseases, enemy movement, or how great a professor skier looks when he’s going down a mountain. Now the benefits of aerial surveillance have spread to other worlds as Perseverance begins planning its path with the help of Ingenuity.
It has always been difficult to guide rovers over the Martian surface from over 200 million miles away. NASA, and now China, have done surprisingly well so far as their rovers are not stuck for long periods of time during their normal mission operations. Campaigns like “Free Spirit” show the devastating effect terrain can have on a rover. It is all the more important for rover handlers to know what they are driving over and how this could affect the rover itself.
The last picture of Spirit before it lost contact with Earth.
Credit – Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer, NASA / JPL / Cornell
Usually this is done through very careful pathfinding. There is an entire team at NASA devoted solely to finding the best way to instill persistence and curiosity. In the past, as with Spirit and Opportunity, rover navigators had to rely on space-based imagery such as those provided by HiRISE and other orbiting satellites. The resolution, while useful, was less than desired, as they could only capture features that were about three feet long. Even minor obstacles could be fatal to the rovers, so drivers also had to rely on the cameras on the rovers themselves to ensure they didn’t fall into sand pits or similar hazards.
This resolution problem has now been solved with Ingenuity. After the successful first flights aimed at proving the idea of a helicopter on another planet, the miniature airplane switched roles to prove its usefulness as a scout for its larger rover companion.
Ingenuity’s view of the Séítah dune field on the ninth flight. Part of the helicopter’s landing gear can be seen on the left side of the screen.
Credit – NASA / JPL – Caltech
On its ninth flight, Ingenuity successfully transmitted some images of the tracks Perseverance had already made, as well as some new areas the rover was approaching. Some of these areas will actually be inaccessible to the rover, making Ingenuity likely the only near vision point we’ll ever get from them. For example, a dune field nicknamed Séítah is too difficult to traverse with the rover, but it was beautifully captured when Ingenuity flew directly over it.
The helicopter also helped explore some interesting areas in the Jezero Crater, including the Raised Ridges, which may have been home to underground water flows in the past. The function is the next stop of Perseverance, where the rover collects samples that will be picked up by a later sample return mission.
Image of the raised ridges that Ingenuity captured on the ninth flight.
Credit – NASA / JPL – Caltech
Ingenuity isn’t the only navigational aid Perseverance gets, however – it includes a feature called AutoNav that allows it to automatically navigate around boulders and rocks instead of being manually steered to earth by a controller. This enables Perseverance to travel further than would otherwise only be possible with direct control. AutoNav is not that good at detecting sand, however, so it is important that a human operator is still able to point out more subtle hazards.
The combination of new navigation is just one reason why Perseverance is the most powerful rover to ever land on Mars. With months of further scientific endeavor, it has only just begun collecting data about its surroundings. Elucidating the ancient climate and geology of Mars is an important part of the rover’s mission. But arguably an even more important search is one of the driving forces behind where the rover wants to go next – the search for life on Mars. Whatever the outcome of that search, Ingenuity now seems well positioned to bring Perseverance to the right places to look.
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Image of the traces of Perseverance taken in Ingenuity