20 March 2022
The American space agency NASA has extended flight operations on Mars for its Ingenuity helicopter.
Ingenuity landed on Mars a little over a year ago along with NASA's Perseverance explorer, or rover.
At first, NASA officials described Ingenuity as a demonstration mission. It was designed to see whether the small aircraft could take off, fly a short distance, and then land on the Red Planet.
The helicopter quickly succeeded in those areas during a series of tests. NASA said the flights marked the first time any aircraft had performed a powered, controlled flight on another planet.
Last May, NASA announced it was expanding Ingenuity's experimental mission. Since then, Ingenuity has kept flying on Mars. So far, the helicopter has completed 21 flights. On March 15, the space agency announced it was extending Ingenuity's mission through September.
Thomas Zurbuchen is associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. He praised Ingenuity's progress. "Less than a year ago, we didn't even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible," he said. "Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity's involvement in Perseverance's second science campaign."
During that next science campaign, NASA says, Ingenuity will center on exploring an ancient river system on Mars' Jezero Crater. Ingenuity has been working together with Perseverance in an area of Jezero known as Séítah.
NASA says the river system Ingenuity will help explore is very different from the areas it has been flying over since its first flight in April. The past flights have been carried out over mostly flat surfaces. The river system, called a delta, rises more than 40 meters above the crater floor. It contains sharp cliffs, large rocks and sand-filled areas.
Such areas could present transportation difficulties for the Perseverance rover. So, the helicopter's main goal will be to help map a safe path for Perseverance to cross over into the delta, NASA said. In addition, data provided by the helicopter will help the Perseverance team assess possible science targets.
The river delta area is considered a good target for science experiments because it is believed to hold valuable geologic elements. NASA said the area may even contain "the proof necessary to determine (whether) microscopic life once existed on Mars billions of years ago." Perseverance is on a mission to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.
Teddy Tzanetos is the Ingenuity team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He said the Jezero river delta campaign "will be the biggest challenge the Ingenuity team faces since the first flight at Mars." In preparation for the helicopter's upcoming activities, Tzanetos said he had increased the size of the team and upgraded the aircraft's flight software.
The upgrades are designed to permit Ingenuity to fly higher, make longer trips and improve safety in more difficult conditions.
So far, Ingenuity has flown more than 38 minutes and traveled 4.6 kilometers. NASA says the helicopter's 22nd flight is set to happen no earlier than March 19. It is expected to include a "complex" move requiring the aircraft to take a sharp turn to avoid a large hill in its path.
Ingenuity's chief pilot is Havard Grip. He noted that the continuing flights are quickly filling up a book he uses to record each trip. He said when the mission started, he thought he would be lucky to record five flights. "Now, at the rate we're going, I'm going to need a second book," Grip said.
I'm Bryan Lynn.
Bryan Lynn wrote this report for VOA Learning English, based on reports from NASA.
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Words in This Story
mission – n. an important project or trip, especially involving space travel
crater – n. a big hole in the ground created by the force of an object
cliff – n. an area containing high, steep rocks
assess – v. make a judgement about the quality, size, value, etc. of something
determine – v. to officially decide something because of evidence or facts
challenge – n. a difficult task or problem; something that is hard to do
upgrade – v. to improve something by making it newer or better quality