NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is a stunning achievement of engineering, design, and, well, ingenuity. The dual-rotor craft can be seen taking off and landing in this remarkable video, taken by the Mastcam-Z, an imager aboard the Perseverance Mars Rover. Mastcam-Z is a tremendous scientific instrument, but this article’s truly outstanding lead image was taken with Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument.
Published by Kevin Gill, self-described software engineer, planetary and climate data wrangler, science data visualization artist, the image gives a visceral sense of the robotic aircraft’s journey on the red planet.
Artist’s rendering of the SuperCam laser in action on Mars. Credit NASA
The image was produced by SuperCam’s color remote micro-imager (RMI), one of a suite of instruments that help to put the Super in SuperCam. SuperCam also utilizes Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS). This elemental composition process involves using a powerful infrared laser to vaporize rock samples and analyze their chemical makeup. It is almost surreal to realize that a nuclear-powered minivan-sized science rover is driving around the planet Mars, blasting rocks with a powerful laser. Then, using the same suite of instruments, it takes high-resolution photographs of the experimental helicopter that it brought on its interplanetary excursion.
Perseverance ‘selfie’ including the Ingenuity helicopter in the background. This region of Mars is now known as Wright Brothers Field, and a small piece of fabric from the original Wright Flyer is stowed aboard the helicopter. For a sense of scale, note that the wheels of the rover are roughly half a meter in diameter. Credit NASA
Along with RMI and LIBS, Supercam also performs various kinds of spectroscopic analysis. These include 532 nm Raman spectroscopy, Time-Resolved Fluorescence (TFR) spectroscopy, and Visible and InfraRed (VISIR) reflectance spectroscopy. All of this means that SuperCam can do a whole lot more than an ordinary camera, and we can gain insight into the mineralogy, chemistry, and atomic composition of a much broader swath of Mars. It has clearly earned the ‘super’ in its name.
SuperCam before installation on the Perseverance rover. Credit CNES
It is easy to forget how remarkable Ingenuity and Perseverance are. They are on another planet, after all! The photographs and videos coming back from these missions leave me with a sense of awe and wonder. Sometimes it feels unreal. The gritty, high-resolution SuperCam image of Ingenuity reinforces the reality of exploring another planet.
A color picture taken mid-flight on April 25, 2021 by the Ingenuity helicopter. The Perseverance rover is visible in this otherworldly aerial photograph. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars exploration has come a long way since the plucky Sojourner rover from 1997’s Mars Pathfinder mission. The incredible capabilities of Perseverance and Ingenuity seem almost like science fiction, and it is remarkable to watch as they continue to explore the planet and send back stunning data, videos, and images for us curious Earthlings to enjoy.
Lead Image: A look at the Ingenuity from Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/Kevin M. Gill