The Perseverance rover is currently trundling its way across Mars’ Jezero Crater, on its way to explore an exciting location called the delta. It’s the site of an ancient river delta, and scientists are looking forward to scouring this area for two particular reasons: firstly, because if there ever was life on Mars, then this is one of the most likely locations we could find evidence of it, and secondly, because it should be possible to find rocks from miles away that were carried to this location by the river long ago.

But it takes a long time for a little rover to travel across Mars’ rocky surface, so Perseverance has been making slow progress as it makes the climb up the delta and toward the river deposits the scientists are so interested in. Now, though, the rover has a sidekick to help it, as the Ingenuity helicopter has arrived to join the rover and scout ahead to find the best path forward.

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Perseverance looks towards the Delta on Sol 419, capturing this image with its Right Navigation Camera.
Perseverance looks toward the Delta on Sol 419 to capture this image with its Right Navigation Camera. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity has survived far longer than anyone had anticipated it would, even clinging on through the dropping temperatures and low air pressure of the cold martian winter. Now that winter has passed, the helicopter can get back to its flights, moving hundreds of meters in a span of a few minutes each time and observing the structures ahead to give the rover drivers an idea of what to expect in the coming days.

This experimental use of the rover and helicopter combo team has had some challenges. In a recent blog post, Ingenuity engineer Travis Brown described how flying the helicopter over the delta was difficult because the valley-like structure meant it had to stay within a few hundred meters of the rover for communication. That also puts a time pressure on the helicopter flights, because it can’t fall behind the rover or it will lose contact. Finally, the helicopter needs to stay close to the rover, but not too close, because the teams can’t risk the two colliding and damaging each other. That requires some careful maneuvering in the narrow space.

To manage these challenges, the helicopter took a series of short, but regular hop flights throughout January this year, before setting off on longer stretches beginning in February, including its longest flight in over a year. But one of these long stretches took the helicopter out of communications range, and the photos it sent back were not usable. Soon though, the rover caught up to the helicopter, which then had to move onward again to avoid the two coming into contact with each other in what Brown describes as “a game of cat and mouse.”

This high-stakes game worked out though, and Ingenuity has been able to stay ahead of, but close enough to, the rover to act as scout. Now Ingenuity has arrived at a location called Abercastell, just next to the first stop of exploring the delta, called Tenby, where the rover will spend several days on what could be some of the most scientifically exciting work of the mission.

If you’d like to keep an eye on this intrepid pair, head to NASA’s Where is Perseverance? webpage which shows the current location of both the rover and the helicopter.

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