The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Just Sent Its Last Message Home

Two months ago the team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter released a video reflecting on its historic explorations of Mars, flying 10.5 miles (17.0 kilometers) in 72 different flights over three years. It was the team’s way of saying goodbye, according to NASA’s video.

And this week, LiveScience reports, Ingenuity answered back:

On April 16, Ingenuity beamed back its final signal to Earth, which included the remaining data it had stored in its memory bank and information about its final flight. Ingenuity mission scientists gathered in a control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California to celebrate and analyze the helicopter’s final message, which was received via NASA’s Deep Space Network, made up of ground stations located across the globe.

In addition to the remaining data files, Ingenuity sent the team a goodbye message including the names of all the people who worked on the mission. This special message had been sent to Perseverance the day before and relayed to Ingenuity to send home.

The helicopter, which still has power, will now spend the rest of its days collecting data from its final landing spot in Valinor Hills, named after a location in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books.

The chopper will wake up daily to test its equipment, collect a temperature reading and take a single photo of its surroundings. It will continue to do this until it loses power or fills up its remaining memory space, which could take 20 years. Such a long-term dataset could not only benefit future designs for Martian vehicles but also “provide a long-term perspective on Martian weather patterns and dust movement,” researchers wrote in the statement. However, the data will be kept on board the helicopter and not beamed back to Earth, so it must be retrieved by future Martian vehicles or astronauts.

“Whenever humanity revisits Valinor Hills — either with a rover, a new aircraft, or future astronauts — Ingenuity will be waiting with her last gift of data,” Teddy Tzanetos, an Ingenuity scientist at JPL, said in the statement.

Thursday NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released another new video tracing the entire route of Ingenuity’s expedition over the surface of Mars.

“Ingenuity’s success could pave the way for more extensive aerial exploration of Mars down the road,” adds
Mission team members are already working on designs for larger, more capable rotorcraft that could collect a variety of science data on the Red Planet, for example. And Mars isn’t the only drone target: In 2028, NASA plans to launch Dragonfly, a $3.3 billion mission to Saturn’s huge moon Titan, which hosts lakes, seas and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons on its frigid surface. The 1,000-pound (450 kg) Dragonfly will hop from spot to spot on Titan, characterizing the moon’s various environments and assessing its habitability.

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Can NASA Return Mars Samples to Earth? New Audit Raises Doubts writes that NASA’s plan to return samples from Mars to the earth “is facing major challenges, according to a new report.

“Design, cost and scheduling are all significant obstacles, an audit report of NASA’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) Program by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) finds…”

It involves landing on Mars to collect samples taken by the Perseverance rover and launching those samples to rendezvous with an orbiter, which will haul them to Earth. Perseverance is already on Mars, snagging and storing samples. But the program still needs to build a Sample Retrieval Lander and an Earth Return Orbiter, the latter being developed and funded by the European Space Agency. The Mars Sample Return program is one of the most technically complex, operationally demanding and ambitious robotic science missions ever undertaken by NASA, according to the OIG report.

The report notes design, architecture and schedule issues with the Capture Containment and Return System. These design issues resulted in adding about $200 million to the budget and one year of lost schedule… There is concern that, due to the number and significance of cost increase indicators so far, the $7.4 billion estimate is “premature and may be insufficient,” the report finds. Now, the complexity… could drive costs to between $8 billion to $11 billion, the OIG report notes, citing a September 2023 Independent Review Board report. Notably, a July 2020 estimate listed costs of $2.5 to $3 billion.

These new figures indicate significant financial challenges and uncertainties… Issues include inflation, supply chain problems and increases in funding requests for specific program components.

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Could We Make It To Mars Without NASA? notes NASA’s successful completion of its Artemis I mission, calling it “part of NASA’s ambitious program to bring American astronauts back to the moon for the first time in half a century. And then on to Mars.”

But then they ask if the project is worth the money, with the transportation policy director at the libertarian “Reason Foundation” think tank, Robert W. Poole, arguing instead that NASA “isn’t particularly interested in cost savings, and its decision making is overly driven by politics.”

NASA would have been better off replacing the costly and dated Space Launch System used in the Artemis program. But it didn’t. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was largely constructed and engineered in Alabama, the home state of Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby, who has a history of strong-arming NASA to preserve jobs for his constituents.

Long-time Slashdot reader SonicSpike shared the article, which ultimately asks whether it’d be faster and cheaper to just rely on private companies:
In 2009, the private sector saw one of its biggest champions ascend to become the number two person at NASA. Lori Garver pushed to scrap the Constellation program as a way to entice the private sector to fill in the gaps. She also spearheaded the Commercial Crew Program, which continues to employ commercial contractors to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Today, companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are launching rockets at a faster pace and for a fraction of what NASA spends. In 2022, the company successfully launched 61 rockets, each with a price tag between $100 million and 150 million.

Private companies already design and lease NASA much of its hardware. Poole says there’s no reason NASA can’t take it a step further and just use the SpaceX starship to cover the entire journey from Earth to the moon and eventually to Mars. “If the current NASA plan goes ahead to have the SpaceX Starship actually deliver the astronauts from the lunar outpost orbit to the surface of the moon and bring them back, that would be an even more dramatic refutation of the idea that only NASA should be doing space transportation,” he says.

Poole says that instead of flying its own missions, NASA should play a more limited and supportive role. “The future NASA role that makes the most sense is research and development to advance science,” he says.

But for a contrary opinion, Slashdot reader youn counters that “You can bash NASA all you want but a big reason the private sector is where it is at is because it funded research 12 years ago.” They share a CNET article noting the $6 billion NASA budgeted over five years “to kick-start development of a new commercial manned spaceflight capability.”

And Slashdot reader sg_oneill argues that “Its gonna be a century before we’re really colonizing the moon and/or Mars… because we have a lot of science to do first. How do you do a civilization with zero energy inputs from the rest of humanity? How do we deal with radiation? How do bodies work in low G? (Mars is about 1/3 the gravbity of earth). This needs science, and to get science we need NASA, even if private enterprise is building the rockets.”

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A Space Rock Smashed Into Mars’ Equator – and Revealed Chunks of Ice

The mission of NASA’s robotic lander InSight “is nearing an end as dust obscures its solar panels,” reports CNN. “In a matter of weeks, the lander won’t be able to send a beep to show it’s OK anymore.”

“Before it bids farewell, though, the spacecraft still has some surprises in store.”
When Mars rumbled beneath InSight’s feet on December 24, NASA scientists thought it was just another marsquake. The magnitude 4 quake was actually caused by a space rock slamming into the Martian surface a couple thousand miles away. The meteoroid left quite a crater on the red planet, and it revealed glimmering chunks of ice in an entirely unexpected place — near the warm Martian equator.
The chunks of ice — the size of boulders — “were found buried closer to the warm Martian equator than any ice that has ever been detected on the planet,” CNN explained earlier this week. The article also adds that ice below the surface of Mars “could be used for drinking water, rocket propellant and even growing crops and plants by future astronauts. And the fact that the ice was found so near the equator, the warmest region on Mars, might make it an ideal place to land crewed missions to the red planet.”

Interestingly, they note that scientists only realized it was a meteoroid strike (and not an earthquake) when “Before and after photos captured from above by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling Mars since 2006, spotted a new crater this past February.” A crater that was 492 feet (150 meters) across and 70 feet (21 meters) deep…

When scientists connected the dots from both missions, they realized it was one of the largest meteoroid strikes on Mars since NASA began studying the red planet…. The journal Science published two new studies describing the impact and its effects on Thursday….

“The image of the impact was unlike any I had seen before, with the massive crater, the exposed ice, and the dramatic blast zone preserved in the Martian dust,” said Liliya Posiolova, orbital science operations lead for the orbiter at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, in a statement….

Researchers estimated the meteoroid, the name for a space rock before it hits the ground, was about 16 to 39 feet (5 to 12 meters). While this would have been small enough to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, the same can’t be said for Mars, which has a thin atmosphere only 1% as dense as Earth’s…. Some of the material blasted out of the crater landed as far as 23 miles (37 kilometers) away.

Teams at NASA also captured sound from the impact, so you can listen to what it sounds like when a space rock hits Mars. The images captured by the orbiter, along with seismic data recorded by InSight, make the impact one of the largest craters in our solar system ever observed as it was created.

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Researchers: It’s ‘Unlikely’ There’s Water- or Ice-Saturated Layers Below InSight Mars Lander

Did Mars ever support life? One clue might be quantifying just how much ice (and other minerals) are lurking just below the planet’s surface, a team of researchers argued this month. “If life exists on Mars, that is where it would be,” they said in a news release this week. “There is no liquid water on the surface,” but in a contrary scenario, “subsurface life would be protected from radiation.”

Locating ice and minerals has another benefit too, they write in the journal Geophysical Research Letters: to “prepare for human exploration.” And fortunately, there’s a tool on the InSight lander (which touched down in 2018) that can help estimate the velocity of seismic waves inside the geological crust of Mars — velocities which change depending on which rock types are present, and which materials are filling pores within rocks (which could be ice, water, gas, or other mineral cements).

That’s the good news. But after running computer models of applied rock physics thousands and thousands of times, the researchers believe it’s unlikely that there’s any layers saturated with water (or ice) in the top 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the crust of Mars. “Model results confirm that the upper 300 meters of Mars beneath InSight is most likely composed of sediments and fractured basalts.”

The researchers reached a discouraging conclusion, reports “The chances of finding Martian life appear poor at in the vicinity of NASA’s InSight lander.”
The subsurface around the landing zone — an equatorial site chosen especially for its flat terrain and good marsquake potential — appears loose and porous, with few ice grains in between gaps in the crust, researchers said…. The equatorial region where InSight is working, in theory, should be able to host subsurface water, as conditions are cold enough even there for water to freeze. But the new finding is challenging scientists’ assumptions about possible ice or liquid water beneath the subsurface near InSight, whose job is to probe beneath the surface.

While images from the surface have suggested there might be sedimentary rock and lava flows beneath InSight, researchers’ models have uncertainties about porosity and mineral content. InSight is helping to fill in some of those gaps, and its new data suggests that “uncemented material” largely fills in the region blow the lander. That suggests little water is present, although more data needs to be collected.

It’s unclear how representative the InSight data is of the Martian subsurface in general, but more information may come courtesy of future missions. NASA is considering a Mars Life Explorer that would drill 6 feet (2 meters) below the surface to search for possible habitable conditions. Additionally, a proposed Mars Ice Mapper Mission could search for possible water reservoirs for human missions.

And of course, as the researchers point out in their announcement, “big ice sheets and frozen ground ice remain at the Martian poles.”

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