It was a late addition to Mars 2020, not even part of the original plans.  It was supposed to be a mere prototype, a knickknack, a tchotchke, a gizmo.  A machine that would, if all went well, make a few hesitating, delicate flights over the course of one Earth month in the thin air near the surface of Mars, just to demonstrate that such a thing could actually be done. 

But things have gone far beyond expectations, so much so that NASA has determined that the mission of Ingenuity — The Little Helicopter That Could — will be extended indefinitely.

Just this past Sunday, Ingenuity made its 13th flight to examine in detail an area called South Séítah:

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But what convinced NASA once and for all that Ingenuity — the proverbial undrafted rookie free agent — should make the team was its 12th flight, taken on August 16.  Prior to that, here were the paths of Perseverance and Ingenuity: 

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Ground tracks of NASA’s Perseverance rover (white) and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (green) since arriving on Mars February 18.  Ingenuity scouted the “Raised Ridges” geologic feature during its 10th flight and the “South Séítah” region during its 12th

Originally, the landscape near Jezero Crater had been known primarily from Mars Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO) images like this:

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Perseverance’s two projected paths were originally the blue (top) path and the purple (bottom) path.  It has taken the latter, and right now it sits about where the arrow is pointing

If you look just above the arrow in the image above, you can make out the V-shaped ridge that Perseverance is on.  Inside that “V” is the South Séítah region.  The MRO images made it appear that the region might be full of interesting geological features like sedimentary rocks, the kind that maybe could have been deposited by flowing water.  That could mean past life, and thus good sampling regions for Perseverance.  So Ingenuity went ahead to check it out.

Here’s a couple of images it took while flying above the region at an altitude of 33 feet:

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The shadow of Ingenuity is visible in this one

Perseverance project scientist and Caltech geochemistry professor Ken Farley had this to say about the images:

“From a science perspective, these images of South Seítah are the most valuable Ingenuity has taken to date.  And part of their value may be in what they are not showing.  Sedimentary layers in rocks are not readily apparent in the image, and there may be areas that could be difficult to negotiate with the rover.  […]

“What this image may be saying is, we don’t need to drive further west to obtain the best geologic variety of this first science campaign.  If we decide to make the trip to South Seítah, we’ve got some valuable intel on what we’ll encounter. And if the decision is to stick around ‘Artuby Ridge,’ the rover’s current location, we’ll have saved valuable time. It’s a win-win.”

Ingenuity has been fortunate so far not to encounter major dust storms or other unexpected hazards, and as long as that is true, it’s going to stay in service, looking out for its big buddy Perseverance.

You’ve come a long, long way, Ingenuity!

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Lockheed Martin engineers work on a lightweight deployment system for Ingenuity in 2019

I’m sure you know by now that Perseverance has successfully drilled its first rock core sample for eventual return to Earth.  In fact, NASA will hold a briefing for the public on this topic tomorrow (Friday) at noon.

But I hope that one day we can bring Ingenuity back to Earth as well, so that it can take its place in the pantheon of historic aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum.   

Frontal view from below of the Wright 1903 Flyer hanging on public display in Gallery 100, Milestones of Flight, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 2002.  To the left, the Goddard rockets are visible and to the right, the Viking Lander display.  Two individuals stand in front of the Apollo 11 capsule in lower center.  The gallery's skylight ceiling is visible above the Wright Flyer.
The 1903 Wright Flyer hanging on public display in the Milestones of Flight Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC

Or maybe it should go into the first museum on Mars!

But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now.  The night is a starry dome, and Ingenuity isn’t nearly done yet…

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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