NASA hacked its Perseverance rover and Mars helicopter for a new mission to the dangerous terrain of the Red Planet’s river delta. Perseverance and its partner Ingenuity have been scouting and sampling Mars for over a year. Their main objective is to find signs of life on the planet.
The safest and shortest way to the new river delta mission site required the vehicles to return to their original landing place. It took several long weeks to get there. Seasons have changed, massive regional dust storms have passed, challenges have come and gone, and both the rover and the helicopter have endured.
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Jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stop a rover in its tracks (or upend a helicopter upon landing) await Perseverance and Ingenuity in the Mars river delta. However, the delta is also the best opportunity NASA has to find life, so the space agency is willing to take the risks. To give them a better chance of surviving the journey, NASA hacked and upgraded both the helicopter and the rover.
Life And Death In the River Delta
NASA says that Perseverance’s self-driving capabilities will be tested to the limit. The rover will attempt to cover more distance in one month than any rover has done before. It will do this thanks to AI, human commands, and “thinking while driving”. Due to the delays in communications, NASA cannot drive the rover in real time. A team of fourteen shift-rotating NASA mobility experts will be writing the commands. NASA explains that Perseverance can take and process images while moving, allowing it to navigate obstacles. If it comes too close to a boulder, cannot clear a rock, or believes it can get trapped in sand, it will alter its route.
The NASA JPL Team flying the Mars Helicopter has also geared up for the challenges. The size of the team has been increased to have more hands-on-deck, and the flight software has been upgraded as well. One of the hacks lets Ingenuity fly to higher altitudes that were previously off-limits. To go higher means to go faster and further. The helicopter can now also make airspeed changes, and better understand the terrain texture while flying. This will help it perform autonomous hazard detection landing.
Both Perseverance and Ingenuity started on the three-mile journey to the river delta within Jezero Crater on March 14, 2022. Water was once abundant here but dried up billions of years ago. Perseverance is already looking for the best route for a 130-foot climb. The Mars helicopter will take to the heights to get a closer look at the rugged terrain. NASA knows the dangerous river delta could be the final resting place for both its explorers, but it also knows signs of life on Mars could have been hiding there all this time.