Perseverance and Ingenuity play catch-up on Mars

The Perseverance rover travels through the Jezero crater on Mars to explore the delta of an ancient dried-up river. Scientists are looking forward to the results of the study of this territory for two special reasons. Firstly, if there was life on Mars once, then this is one of the most likely places where we can find evidence of it. Secondly, there may be rocks with possible organic matter that have been brought here by a turbulent current billions of years ago.

Perseverance looks towards the delta. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But the brave mobile laboratory needs a lot of time to travel on the rocky surface of Mars. Perseverance moves very slowly, rising to the river sediments. But the rover has an aerial helper, the Ingenuity helicopter, who has arrived to join it and help find the best way forward.

Ingenuity has lasted much longer than its creators expected. The helicopter withstood severe cold, low pressure and dusting of solar panels. Now that winter has ended, Ingenuity can restore regular flights to give the rover an idea of what to expect ahead. 

Cat and mouse game

The symbiosis of two robots is experiencing certain difficulties. Travis Brown, a NASA engineer who manages Ingenuity, described in his blog how difficult it is to direct the helicopter over the delta, since the valley limits the flight radius to a few hundred meters from the rover to maintain stable communication. Therefore, the helicopter cannot lag behind the rover, otherwise it will lose contact. At the same time, Ingenuity is forced to keep some distance from the rover, so there is a risk of colliding and damaging each other. This requires careful maneuvering in a narrow space.

The animation shows the movement of the NASA Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter over the delta of the Jezero crater to ancient river sediments. Authorship: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To cope with these problems, Ingenuity made a series of short but regular flights in January 2023. Starting in February, it went to bolder distances, including the longest flight in the last year. But one of these sites caused the helicopter to leave the communication zone and lost some of the photos that it was trying to send to the rover. However, Perseverance soon caught up with the helicopter, which then had to fly further again to increase the distance between them. Brown describes this process as a cat-and-mouse game.

However, this game paid off. Ingenuity has managed to get ahead of the rover, but it remains close enough to it to play the role of a scout. During the 48th flight, Ingenuity has arrived at a place called Abercastell and is waiting for Perseverance, which will conduct one of the most exciting scientific studies here.

Earlier we reported on how Ingenuity saw a spectacular sunset on Mars during the flight.

According to NASA.

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