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Software upgrades help Mars helicopter keep flying

Ingenuity's Earth-side coding team has expanded, and so has its rover-assistance mission

NASA has extended the mission of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter and given it the task of assisting the Perseverance rover, thanks to past and future software updates.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars in February 2021 along with the rover, and was expected to fly just a handful of times as a technology demonstration. The craft exceeded expectations and its mission was moved into an "operational demonstrations" phase. The craft's mission was then extended, and it has flown 21 times to date since its first foray in April 2021.

NASA has now extended its mission until at least September 2022.

A March 15 announcement explains that software upgrades mean the 'copter can take on tougher missions in the Jezero river delta – a region NASA described as "filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stop a rover in its tracks (or upend a helicopter upon landing)."

"The Jezero river delta campaign will be the biggest challenge the Ingenuity team faces since first flight at Mars," according to Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "To enhance our chances of success, we have increased the size of our team and are making upgrades to our flight software geared toward improving operational flexibility and flight safety."

Upgrades under consideration may add terrain elevation maps into Ingenuity's navigation filter. A landing-hazard-avoidance capability is also under consideration.

The 'copter has already been upgraded to reduce navigation errors during flight, to raise the rotorcraft's ceiling above 15 meters, and to change airspeed as it flies. Another past boost imbued Ingenuity with better abilities to understand and adjust to changes in terrain texture during flight.

The software updates will also allow Ingenuity to take an active role in plotting a course for the Perseverance rover.

"Upon reaching the delta, Ingenuity's first orders will be to help determine which of two dry river channels Perseverance should take when it's time to climb to the top of the delta," NASA states.

"Along with routing assistance, data provided by the helicopter will help the Perseverance team assess potential science targets. Ingenuity may even be called upon to image geologic features too far afield (or outside of the rover's traversable zone), or perhaps scout landing zones and caching sites for the Mars Sample Return program." ®

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