Having eyes in the sky is useful for a variety of activities.  Everything from farming to military operations has benefited from the boom in drone usage, as the small aircraft track the progress of crop disease, enemy movements, or how awesome a professor skier looks going down a mountain.  Now the benefits of aerial surveillance has spread to other worlds as Perseverance is starting to map out its path with help from Ingenuity.

It has always been difficult to guide rovers over the Martian surface from over 200 million miles away.  NASA, and now China, have done surprisingly well so far by not having their rovers being stuck for any significant amount of time during their normal mission operation time.  However, campaigns such as “Free Spirit” show the devastating effect terrain can have on a rover.  So it is all the more important for rover handlers to know what they are driving over and how it might affect the rover itself.

The last image from Spirit before it lost contact with Earth.
The last image from Spirit before it lost contact with Earth.
Credit – Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer, NASA / JPL / Cornell

Normally this is done by very careful pathfinding.  There is an entire team at NASA that is dedicated solely to finding the best path forward for Perseverance and Curiosity.  In the past, such as with Spirit and Opportunity, rover navigators had to rely on space based images such as those provided by HiRISE and other orbiting satellites.  While useful, the resolution was less than desired, as they were only able to capture features measured about a meter.  Even smaller obstructions could prove fatal to the rovers, so drivers had to also rely on the cameras on the rovers themselves to ensure they weren’t falling into any sand pits or similar hazards.

That resolution problem has now been solved with Ingenuity. After it’s successful first few flights, which were focused on proving the idea of a helicopter working on another planet, the miniature aircraft switched roles to try to prove its usefulness as a scout for its larger rover companion.  

Ingenuity's view of the Séítah dune field on it's ninth flight.  Part of the helicopter's landing gear can be seen on the left side of the screen.
Ingenuity’s view of the Séítah dune field on it’s ninth flight. Part of the helicopter’s landing gear can be seen on the left side of the screen.
Credit – NASA / JPL – Caltech

On its ninth flight, Ingenuity successfully transmitted back some images of the tracks Perseverance had already made, as well as some new areas the rover is approaching.  Some of those areas will actually be inaccessible to the rover, making Ingenuity likely the only close up viewpoint that we will ever get of them.  A dune field, nicknamed Séítah, for example, is too difficult to traverse with the rover, but captured beautifully as Ingenuity flew right over it.

The helicopter also helped to scout some areas of interest in Jezero Crater, including the Raised Ridges, which could have hosted underground water flows in the past.  The feature is Perseverance’s next stopping point, where the rover will collect samples to be picked up by a later sample return mission.

Image of the Raised Ridges that Ingenuity captured on its ninth flight.