Mars Helicopter Simply Retains on Going

The unique mission of the Mars Helicopter (named Ingenuity) was to efficiently full a single 30-second lengthy flight on Mars. That occurred again in April. After a number of extra profitable flights, Ingenuity’s 30-day mission got here to an finish, however the helicopter was doing so nicely that NASA determined to maintain it flying. A number of months later, JPL promised that Ingenuity would “full flight operations no later than the top of August,” however as of late November, the little helicopter has accomplished 17 flights with no signal of slowing down.

NASA has stored the helicopter operational, partially, as a result of it’s transitioned from a pure expertise demonstration to an operations demonstration. The truth is, Ingenuity has turned out to be fairly helpful to each the science workforce in addition to the roboticists who function the Perseverance rover. Whereas NASA by no means deliberate to have Ingenuity make occasional scouting flights, its having that functionality appears to have paid off. To know simply how a lot of a distinction the helicopter is making to Perseverance’s mission, we talked to one of many Mars rover drivers at JPL, Olivier Toupet.

Toupet has been at JPL for 9 years, and he’s the supervisor of JPL’s Robotic Aerial Mobility group (which incorporates key members of the Mars Helicopter workforce). He’s additionally the deputy lead of the rover planner workforce for Perseverance, that means that he’s one of many people who tells the rover the place to go and learn how to get there. In his position as a Perseverance rover driver, Toupet focuses on strategic route planning, which suggests listening to the place the scientists need the rover to go and serious about learn how to finest attain all of these targets whereas contemplating issues like security and long run objectives. “We design routes to go to the targets that scientists are fascinated with, or we inform them that it’s too harmful,” Toupet tells us.

“Initially there was a whole lot of pushback, even from the science workforce, as a result of they thought it was going to be a distraction. However ultimately, we’re all very proud of the helicopter, together with the science workforce.”
—Olivier Toupet, NASA JPL

Toupet was additionally one of many rover drivers on the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) applications, and over time, he and his workforce have developed a strong instinct about learn how to drive Mars rovers over several types of terrain—learn how to do it effectively, but additionally minimizing the probabilities that the rover might get broken or caught. Clearly, the stakes are very excessive, so the rover workforce takes no possibilities, and typically having even a single image from Ingenuity of a possible route can fully change issues, says Toupet.

IEEE Spectrum: How a lot of a distinction has it made so that you can have Ingenuity scouting for Perseverance on Mars?

Olivier Toupet: My workforce designs the routes for the rover to drive, and usually we’ve got orbital imagery [from Hi-RISE], which is as you may think about very low decision, after which we’ve got imagery from the rover on the floor, however it may well solely see just a few hundred meters. With the orbital imagery, we are able to’t see rocks which might be smaller than usually a few meter. However a rock that’s taller than 35 centimeters is an impediment for the rover—it may well’t put its wheel over a rock that measurement. So it’s been actually useful to have that helicopter imagery to refine our strategic route and plan to keep away from difficult terrain nicely earlier than the rover can see it.”

Animated gif cycling between blurry orbital imagery, less blurry rover imagery, and high resolution helicopter images
This animation exhibits the totally different varieties of images that the rover planners are ready to make use of for route planning, together with imagery from the rover’s personal cameras, photos taken from orbit, and helicopter photos.NASA/JPL

What about planning for day-to-day rover operations?

We do have a look at the helicopter photos when planning our each day drives, however we won’t absolutely belief the 3D mesh obtained from pairs of overlapping photos as a result of we do not know the precise distance the helicopter flew in between each. We use the pictures in a qualitative manner, however we are able to’t inform the place obstacles are with the precision that we’d want for drive planning—we are able to’t entrust the lifetime of the rover to these photos.

You and your workforce have to be extremely expert at understanding Martian terrain from the comparatively low-resolution orbital photos, since JPL has been planning for rovers on Mars primarily based totally on orbital photos for many years now. With that in thoughts, how truly helpful is high-resolution imagery just like the helicopter supplies?

I used to be truly a rover planner on Alternative, Curiosity, and now Perseverance, so I’ve been doing this for a very long time! Nevertheless it’s a good query. You might be appropriate that we’re very skilled with deciphering orbital imagery, however there are nonetheless some instances the place greater decision imagery may be crucial. With Curiosity, there’s a spot known as Logan Go, the place after all we had relied on orbital imagery for our strategic route planning.

Panoramic image of the Mars surface showing a sandy depression with hills and mountains in the background
View southeastward in direction of Logan Go from Curiosity’s Mast Digital camera, taken in Might of 2015.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We thought there was a shortcut to get there that we might squeeze by means of. We drove all the best way there to the beginning of a slope that we have been going to must drive on with a big discipline of sand dunes beneath it. We’d thought that the slope was more likely to be compacted sand, which might have been fantastic, however what we couldn’t see on the orbital imagery was that the slope was truly a skinny layer of sand on prime of pebbles, and when the rover tried driving on it, it started to slide considerably down in direction of the sand lure. We tried to get throughout the slope a few instances, however we ended up deciding that it wasn’t secure in any respect, so we needed to take a reasonably substantial detour as a result of that strategic route wasn’t possible.

Curiosity's path shown as a white line which goes into a dead end and out again
Orbital imagery of Curiosity’s route displaying try to traverse Logan Go, adopted by detour by means of Marias Go.NASA

So total, it’s true that usually orbital imagery is nice sufficient, particularly on terrain that’s fairly benign. However there are occasions the place having greater decision imagery forward of time may be very invaluable for route planning.

What about for Perseverance? Are there any examples of particular methods by which detailed imagery from Ingenuity brought about you to vary your thoughts a few route?

We landed proper subsequent to an space known as Séítah, which is definitely very laborious to drive by means of as a result of it is full of enormous sand dunes. And getting caught in sand is the nightmare of each rover planner, as a result of it may very well be mission-ending. Proper after touchdown, the scientists have been saying, “let’s cross over Séítah and get to the delta!” I mentioned, that’s not going to occur, we’ve got to drive round it.

Orbital image showing Perseverance's route as a white line traveling around an area of hills and sand dunes
View of Perseverance’s route round Séítah and present place of the rover and helicopter on the south aspect of Séítah.NASA

Whereas we have been driving round, the helicopter simply flew proper over to the west aspect of Séítah on Flight 9. That was actually fascinating, as a result of it gave us glorious photos and we realized that whereas there have been some locations we wouldn’t need to drive in, there have been different locations that really seemed traversable.

Image of the sandy, rocky surface of Mars, with the shadow of the Mars helicopter in flight at the bottom
Picture taken by Ingenuity displaying bedrock poking by means of sand, suggesting that some areas may be traversable by the Perseverance rover.NASA/JPL-Caltech

And so it was actually useful to have that helicopter imagery over Séítah to refine our strategic route. Due to the helicopter, we ended up modifying our route—we have been initially going to drive over a type of hill, however the helicopter flew proper above that hill, and I used to be capable of see that the hill seemed rather more difficult than I assumed from the orbital imagery. Ultimately, we determined to drive round it.

Aerial image of a hill on Mars showing a red line labeled
Picture taken by Ingenuity of the hill Perseverance had deliberate to climb, which helped the rover planning workforce determine to drive across the hill as a substitute.NASA/JPL-Caltech

If we hadn’t had the helicopter imagery, I feel we’d nonetheless have made it work and located the identical route. However having the helicopter, we have been capable of plan the route forward of time, and make a a lot better estimate of how lengthy it could take, which helps the entire Perseverance rover workforce to plan extra effectively. That’s fairly invaluable.

What has the response been to having the Mars Helicopter stick round as a scout?

The entire workforce, all of us like it! We didn’t know we have been going to like it—it’s actually fascinating, I feel initially there was a whole lot of pushback, even from the science workforce, as a result of they thought it was going to be a distraction. However ultimately, we’re all very proud of the helicopter, together with the science workforce. The extra info we’ve got the higher—for the science workforce, for instance, the helicopter can save us a whole lot of time by shortly investigating probably fascinating areas.

“We’ve discovered a method to do each rover and helicopter actions in parallel, in a manner that’s very low influence and really excessive worth.”
—Olivier Toupet, NASA JPL

For instance, after we flew the helicopter over Séítah, over the world the place the scientists wished the rover to go, the images that the helicopter took enabled the scientists to determine whether or not it was even value attempting to drive the rover that far—it could have taken us two or three weeks to even get there. However the photos from the helicopter led the scientists to say, “hey, yeah, this space is definitely actually fascinating, and we see invaluable rocks that we’d prefer to go and pattern. And so it enabled us to make that call early on moderately than probably losing two to a few weeks driving over there for nothing.

At one level, JPL mentioned that even when every thing with the helicopter was working nice, flight operations would stop “no later than the top of August.” Clearly, the helicopter continues to be flying—how a lot of a shock has that been?

Frankly, it’s been a giant shock, however we must always have recognized higher! Alternative was imagined to be a 90-day mission, and it was nonetheless going 14 years later. A few of us suspected that the helicopter mission would proceed to be prolonged, however the helicopter workforce performed their playing cards fairly near their chest. Clearly, they have been very targeted on engaging in the tech demo, and that was at all times a prime precedence. So each time we’d ask, “what occurs subsequent,” they’d inform us to not get distracted as a result of a profitable tech demo was why the helicopter was funded to go to Mars.

However I keep in mind being in a gathering with somebody from NASA HQ, who mentioned one thing that may be very true, which was that the tech demo is nice, however the long-term aim is to point out the potential of flying on Mars. I actually hope that Ingenuity being so successful signifies that sooner or later there shall be one other helicopter mission to Mars. You’ll be able to think about a helicopter flying into Vallis Marineris, the most important canyon within the photo voltaic system. It could be superb.

The official story was at all times that there have been going to be 5 flights and that was most likely going to be the top, and so I’m glad that we’re now at flight 17, and the helicopter has been extraordinarily profitable. I can’t wait to see all of the issues we’ll be capable of do within the months to come back, together with after we attain the delta—there are various steep slopes, and many dunes, so having the helicopter there’s going to be particularly invaluable.

Black and white image taken from orbit giving a 3D effect of an ancient river delta
Indirect view of the Jezero crater delta wanting west.NASA/MSSS/USGS

Do you suppose that a part of the explanation that the mission retains getting prolonged is as a result of NASA is realizing simply how invaluable having a helicopter scout may be for a rover like Perseverance?

Sure, I feel possibly we didn’t initially understand simply how helpful the helicopter can be in supporting our scientific mission. I might additionally say that one more reason the helicopter mission retains getting prolonged is as a result of it’s turned out to have a reasonably minimal influence on the rover workforce, within the sense that the helicopter workforce has been fairly impartial and they’re solely flying as soon as each two to a few weeks. We’ve discovered a method to do each rover and helicopter actions in parallel, in a manner that’s very low influence and really excessive worth.

It appears like having a helicopter scout would make an particularly huge distinction as soon as Perseverance reaches the delta. Are you hoping Ingenuity will survive that lengthy, and that it’ll be capable of scout for the rover indefinitely?

I undoubtedly hope so! Initially, there have been some issues about whether or not the helicopter’s electronics will be capable of survive the winter [through March of next year]. There are nonetheless some questions on this, however issues are wanting promising. There are additionally communications challenges—to date, the helicopter has been staying fairly near the rover, inside about 300 meters. However as soon as we’re achieved with this space to the southwest of Séítah, the rover shall be driving in a short time again round Séítah to the foot of the delta. Particularly, we’ll be utilizing multi-sol autonav, which is the place we inform the rover to maintain on driving itself autonomously as shortly as it may well to its vacation spot over a number of Martian days. Put the pedal to the metallic! And so there’s a little little bit of concern whether or not the helicopter can sustain with us. It’s humorous, I really like the helicopter, however I additionally work on the autonav software program, so I hope the rover goes quick.

Orbital image of Jezero crater with a dotted yellow line taking a winding kilometers-long route around craters to a location called Three Forks.
Perseverance’s deliberate route from Séítah to Jezero’s river deltaNASA

However I feel it’s going to be fantastic. The helicopter workforce is engaged on improved capabilities, together with the aptitude to pop up within the sky and discuss to the rover, and that might considerably enhance the communications vary, even perhaps to kilometers. So whereas they’re going to do their finest to attempt to sustain with the rover, in parallel they’re engaged on bettering the aptitude of the helicopter to remain in communications even from farther away. So I am very hopeful that Ingenuity shall be round for a very long time!

As somebody who’s been engaged on a number of generations of Mars rovers, what would you prefer to see from the next-generation Mars helicopter?

The large benefit of a helicopter is after all that it may well fly, and the Mars Science Helicopter will be capable of fly tens of kilometers in a single day. To provide you a way of perspective, we’re hoping that Perseverance will be capable of drive just a few hundred meters in a day. So the helicopter would have a number of orders of magnitude extra vary, which is superb—you might think about going not simply to 1 website on Mars, however to a number of websites.

A rendering showing on right the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, 0.5m across, next to the Mars Science Helicopter concept, which has six rotors and is six times the size.
Mars Science Helicopter idea in comparison with Ingenuity.

However the huge drawback of the helicopter, sadly, is the payload. A rover can carry a whole lot of science devices, whereas the helicopter, as a result of the air density is so low on Mars, has a a lot decrease most payload, which restricts how a lot science you are able to do. That being mentioned, you might think about having the ability to swap devices—what in case you might carry simply the instrument that was crucial for the precise website you’re visiting that day? After all there are technical challenges with that, however yeah, personally I do suppose that the subsequent mission must be a helicopter simply by itself. It could be nice to see that sooner or later.

And after we ship one other rover to Mars, ought to it have its personal helicopter scout?

That is a fantastic query, and a controversial one, as a result of the subsequent mission to Mars is about pattern return, and the European House Company is making the rover, not NASA. And so, I don’t know who will get to make such choices, however I personally do suppose {that a} helicopter can be extraordinarily invaluable—not simply as a scout, however probably additionally as a backup, that might retrieve the samples if the rover had some points. That will be nice to have for certain.

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