Let's hope Ingenuity remembered to take its towel before flying to Mars.
Ingenuity reached a milestone 42 helicopter flights on its extended phase to support the Perseverance rover mission. While practicing for Mars sample return with flair, the flight generated inevitable "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" jokes.
Reaching 42 represents "the meaning of life, the universe, and everything," wrote NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Twitter of the Feb. 4 flight. The number has resonance for fans of the 1979 Douglas Adams novel and associated television series and films, who learned of 42's significance to our cosmos via a fictional supercomputer quoted in the book.
Ingenuity's original manifest called for only five flights after the four-pound (1.8-kg) rover alighted on the surface of Mars underneath the belly of the Perseverance rover. The mission has a larger agenda to search for ancient life in Jezero Crater, which hosted a river delta eons ago.
As Ingenuity proved flights were possible on the Red Planet, its scope quickly expanded. Now the drone has become a reliable partner in scouting ahead for Perseverance's sampling and sorties, so much so that NASA altered its Mars sample return plans in 2022 to include two fetch helicopters.
When that joint NASA-European Space Agency mission arrives on Mars, the prime plan calls for Perseverance to ferry samples to a waiting spacecraft by itself. Failing that, however, the two backup helicopters will serve as Red Planet relief, picking up twin lightsaber-shaped sample tubes Percy is carefully placing on the surface. Then a relay of spacecraft will bring the sample back to Earth no earlier than 2033.
On its latest excursion, Ingenuity flew for more than two minutes (137.2 seconds) and vaulted about 814 feet (248 meters) northwest across the Martian surface, the helicopter's flight log indicates. It reached a maximum altitude of more than two storeys (10 feet or 33.3 feet) with a maximum ground speed of 6.7 mph (10.7 km/h).
The drone has been averaging a flight a week since the beginning of 2023 as Perseverance continues its crawl across the surface, dropping tubes along the way. The rover completed its first sample "depot" about two weeks ago, on Jan. 29, stashing ten precious sealed samples on the surface for the Mars sample return helicopters, if necessary.
Ingenuity and Perseverance alike are working on a new eight-month campaign that JPL officials call "Delta Top." The region appears to be rich in lake rocks and sediments from ancient times and may have hosted the mouth of a Martian river, providing conditions potentially rich for long-ago life.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.