This past weekend, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter logged more than 100 minutes of flying in the thin Martian air, a feat that until just two years ago would have been considered quite ambitious.
Originally designed to demonstrate simple technology, Marscopter has far outlasted its initial one-month mission of five flights, after which its role expanded to Explore the Martian landscape and help NASA perseverance Rover life finder. Building on Ingenuity’s success, scientists are already planning two more small helicopters. This will serve as to support Helicopters on the space agency’s mission to bring tubes of Martian samples back to Earth. The teams are also building another rover to visit Saturn’s moon Titan.
To make the most of future space helicopters, a new study suggests an additional tool: a magnetometer that can collect unique data about the magnetic fields etched on the crusts of any inhabitant of the solar system being explored.
Related: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been flying more than 100 minutes of total Mars flight time
“The era of helicopter-based surveys on Mars has already begun,” the researchers wrote in the new study. “We feel that magnetometer-based studies can take advantage of atmospheric technology to answer some key questions related to the early evolution of Mars.”
Scientists say helicopters flying on Mars would be extremely useful by filling in gaps in observations of local data collected by binaries of landers on the surface, as well as in global data collected by orbiters orbiting the planet hundreds of kilometers away.
Unlike Earth, Mars does not generate its own magnetic field, but rather has its own Dynamo A spinning bubble of magma in the planet’s core that once fed a large magnetic field is thought to have stopped functioning about three or four billion years ago, leaving behind countless pockets of magnetized crust. However, the depth and strength of these scattered spots on Mars, which can shed light on the planet’s evolution, have not been comprehensively mapped.
So powered flights at low altitudes on Mars, perhaps only tens of kilometers high, can detect some of those “unexplored signals” through meteorology of canyons, steep slopes, craters and sand dunes that are too dangerous for rovers but Too small for spacecraft. Orbiting the planet to capture, according to the new study.
The scientists say: “The helicopter is the ideal platform to overcome such limitations.” Studying these small-scale magnetic fields “can provide information that simply cannot be extracted from orbit.”
There is precedent on the ground to suggest such an effort could be beneficial. Aircraft survey data had previously revealed a pattern of magnetic anomalies along tectonic plate boundaries, which eventually became key evidence of the planet’s well-established magnetic field reversals. The same pattern was not found in data from Earth-orbiting satellites, according to the new study.
This research is described in a paper Published August 29 in Planetary Science.