NASA released audio of Ingenuity, the small helicopter that has stolen the show in NASA’s latest Mars mission, on Friday, exciting its many fans but also offering insight into the atmospheric composition of the red planet.
(CN) — It may appear difficult to make the case that a barely audible hum resembling a mosquito buzz represents one of mankind’s greatest achievements, but NASA’s release of an audio file on Friday accomplishes exactly that.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released an audio file on Friday morning of Ingenuity, the small helicopter drone currently part of the Perseverance Rover mission to Mars, as it flew through the Martian atmosphere.
Ingenuity is only 4 pounds and about 2 feet in height, but the diminutive drone has stolen the show even as the Perseverance Rover has begun combing the Jezero Crater in quest of the first signs of life found outside of planet Earth.
The audio recording was taken during Ingenuity’s fourth test flight on April 30 and faintly captures the rotary blades whirring at about 2,500 rotations per minute. NASA scientists were pleasantly surprised Perseverance, which recorded the flight, was able to do so at all, given it was parked about 262 feet from the small helicopter when it took off.
“This is a very good surprise,” said David Mimoun, a professor of planetary science at Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse, France. “We had carried out tests and simulations that told us the microphone would barely pick up the sounds of the helicopter, as the Mars atmosphere damps the sound propagation strongly.”
Mimoun is the science lead for the audio recording device and camera installed on the Perseverance rover and said while the sound capture is fun for the millions of devoted Ingenuity fans, it also helps scientists learn about Mars.
“This recording will be a gold mine for our understanding of the Martian atmosphere,” he said.
The microphone component was initially installed as part of the Perseverance’s central mission and was attached to the rover’s laser instrumentation. The laser is designed to zap surrounding rocks in order to test chemical composition, but the microphone also seeks to record those zaps to get a better understand of rock composition, including its relative hardness.
But like much of the Ingenuity portion of the mission, the microphone has proved to be a versatile machine capable of performing other more extemporaneous feats.
“This is an example of how the different payload instrument suites complement each other, resulting in information synergy,” said Soren Madsen, Perseverance payload development manager. “In this particular case, the microphone and video let us observe the helicopter as if we are there, and additional information, such as the Doppler shift, confirms details of the flight path.”
Ingenuity was initially supposed to be a technical demonstration that flight on Mars was possible, but with its early successes, the small helicopter has been incorporated into the larger mission, scouting for places for Perseverance to explore while also reaching parts of the crater the land-based rover cannot.
Ingenuity was supposed to be retired in late April; instead, it will be flying missions through May.
The audio was released on Friday moments before Ingenuity was slated to take its fifth flight test. While the whir of the rotary blades can be heard, the rumble of the winds obscures most of the flight noise. Scientists were able to doctor the audio to enhance the sound of the helicopter in order to further study its flight through the Martian atmosphere.
Because the Martian atmosphere is much thinner and has fewer air molecules for rotary blades to use as purchase, researchers at JPL strove to replicate the atmospheric conditions in a chamber at the lab in Southern California. The Ingenuity technical demonstration cost the space agency about $85 million but it is already furnishing significant returns.
Ingenuity is the first powered aircraft to make a flight on another planet besides Earth. The initial airfield where Ingenuity took off on April 19 has been renamed after Orville and Wilbur Wright, who made mankind’s first successful motor-operated airplane flight in 1903.
While Ingenuity will continue to fly, the central mission of the Perseverance will commence, meaning the small drone will be relegated to second chair. Perseverance will collect rock samples to be returned to Earth at a later date, but will also hunt for fossilized remnants of microbes that may have flourished billions of years ago when the Jezero Crater was believed to have been a freshwater lake.