NASA's Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA extends Ingenuity helicopter's mission on Mars.
The Ingenuity helicopter, initially designed for five flights, is about to begin its second year of flying on Mars.
The little chopper’s mission has been extended through September by NASA, the agency announced Monday. Ingenuity just completed its 21st successful flight.
It will serve as an aerial scout aiding the Perseverance rover as it explores an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, to search for signs of life, if it ever existed there.
Ingenuity made history when it flew on Mars for the first time last April. Since then, what was once regarded as an experiment has become a crucial component to the rover’s mission of studying the crater.
“Less than a year ago we didn’t even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity’s involvement in Perseverance’s second science campaign. Such a transformation of mindset in such a short period is simply amazing, and one of the most historic in the annals of air and space exploration.”
Things are about to change for Ingenuity, which normally flies over flat terrain.
The delta, which once funneled a river into the lake that filled Jezero Crater more than three billion years ago, is shaped like a fan and stands more than 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater floor.
This intriguing area, which sandwiches together layers of rock that Perseverance can sample, also poses new risks to the rover and the helicopter with its jagged cliffs, sand-filled pockets, boulders and angled surfaces.
Once Ingenuity and Perseverance reach the delta, the helicopter will have its first assignment — helping to determine which dry river channel Perseverance should use to climb to the top of the delta. Ingenuity will also take photos that help the rover’s science team determine the most interesting targets and also capture images of other features that may be too far or dangerous for Perseverance to reach.
The helicopter may even be called to scout potential landing zones for the Mars Sample Return program, which will send the samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth by the 2030s.
“The Jezero river delta campaign will be the biggest challenge the Ingenuity team faces since first flight at Mars,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “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.”
To prepare for the next phase of its journey, Ingenuity has received software upgrades that will allow it to reach greater altitudes than 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground, as well as faster airspeed while flying. In the future, the helicopter’s team may have to make more upgrades to ensure that Ingenuity can avoid the increasing hazards it could encounter.
Ingenuity’s next few flights will help it reach the delta. One flight will include a complex aerial excursion on March 19 that will send the helicopter over 1,150 feet (350 meters) and includes a sharp bend to avoid a large hill.
Since beginning flights on Mars, Ingenuity has spent over 38 minutes flying through the Martian atmosphere and traveled 2.9 miles (4.64 kilometers).
“This upcoming flight will be my 22nd entry in our logbook,” said Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip at JPL in a statement. “I remember thinking when this all started, we’d be lucky to have three entries and immensely fortunate to get five. Now, at the rate we’re going, I’m going to need a second book.”
Every child, at least once in their life, has been admonished to not stare at the sun for so long lest they go blind. But does looking at the sun really cause blindness, or is that just an old wives’ tale? Turns out, it’s a bit of both. The retina most certainly can be damaged by staring straight at the sun, but it would take several minutes of uninterrupted focus for that to happen.
In order to cause permanent injury to the eye, the retina would need to heat up by 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And at the brightest point of the day, when sun-induced eye damage is most likely, the average person can only look at the sun long enough to experience a 39-degree Fahrenheit increase in corneal temperature. After that, our natural defenses take over and our sensitive eyes begin to water and burn, which typically causes us to blink and look away before long-term harm can be done.
Fortunately, there are better and easier ways to get a good look at the sun. We can, for example, peruse NASA’s online gallery of sun photos. Over the last 100 years alone, the agency has taken thousands of photographs of the star. In the following slides, Stacker has rounded up 10 incredible photos of the sun from space taken by the agency. These images are a much clearer and safer way of getting a good look at the glowing ball of gas at the center of our solar system.
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This photo captures the transit of Venus—or the moment in which the planet passes in front of our sun—an event that happens only four times every 243 years. The next Venus transit will happen in 2117, which means no one currently alive is likely to see it ever again.
When solar material enters the sun’s atmosphere or the corona, it is often expelled out in what is called a coronal mass ejection (or CME). These CMEs, which are most easily understood as bubbles of electrified gas, cause the auroras that we see at the north and south poles
Occasionally, the sun will form solar prominences or looped rings of plasma (hot gas) that extend from the star’s surface into its corona. These prominences take a day to form, and can last for several months, but eventually burst—like the one pictured above—when they become unstable, causing a solar flare.
Sunspots, like the ones shown in this image, are areas where the magnetic field is significantly higher than anywhere else on the sun. Because of the way these sunspots affect pressure on the star (their increased magnetic pressure decreases the atmospheric pressure of the corona) they are incredibly volatile and often create dramatic solar flares.
NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory
This photo from NASA shows how the magnetic poles created by various active regions on the sun can link up, or connect, to make swirling and looping patterns across the star’s surface.
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NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory
Essentially the same thing as solar prominences—magnetic loops of hot gas that extend out and away from the sun—filaments are viewed from the top rather than the side. If this particular filament were stretched out, it would be 533,000 miles long, which, according to NASA, is longer than 67 Earths laid side-by-side.
NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory
This picture captures a coronal hole or a spot on the sun where the star’s magnetic field is open to space. Solar wind, which contains all types of gasses, escapes through these holes, causing geomagnetic storms (aka auroras) near Earth.
This composite image covers the space of time between Jan. 2, 2015, and Jan. 28, 2016, and shows which regions of the sun were most active during that span.
A still from a recording done by an orbiting Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (known as TRACE) telescope, this image shows a series of coronal loops extending over the sun’s surface. Coronal loops, which are large amounts of hot plasma that follow the curved lines of magnetic fields, generally arc between pairs of sunspots.