I'm not crying, you're crying!
NASA's Mars itty bitty scouting helicopter has outlived its life expectancy seven times over — and when it does finally cross the cosmic rainbow bridge, things are probably gonna get emotional.
This heartwrenching insider scoop comes from Christopher Hamilton, an associate professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona who's witnessed other tearjerker endings at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Ingenuity, the four-pound helicopter that acts as a scout for the Perseverance Rover, was only supposed to last for 30 days when it was first took to the Martian skies more than seven months ago. As Hamilton told United Press International, Ingenuity's surprisingly-long lifespan will make its final transmission, whenever it comes, that much more bittersweet.
"When the day comes that Ingenuity makes its final flight on Mars," the cosmologist told UPI, "there will be a mixture of emotions — sadness that such an exceptional spacecraft has reached the end of its journey, but also triumph in that Ingenuity opened a new paradigm in Mars exploration."
This little chopper that could is special for more reasons than its lifespan. It was also, as UPI noted, designed as an experiment into whether such a tiny and high-tech robot could survive Mars' notoriously thin atmosphere at all. Seven-and-a-half months and 17 flights around Mars' Jezero Center crater later, Ingenuity has demonstrated that ability in spades.
Much of Ingenuity's worth lies in the fundamental things it can do that terrestrial rovers cannot, chief of which being that it can fly and take high-resolution photos while the Perseverance Rover can only move on the ground. In doing so, Ingenuity has shown the way for the Rover in ways JPL drivers on Earth could not.
What was planned as a "what-if" experiment turned into an important complement for Perseverance, an article in IEEE Spectrum magazine noted.
And what's more, the researchers who have worked with Ingenuity have become very attached to the little rotorcraft on an emotional level.
"The whole team, we all love it!" Olivier Toupet, a Mars Rover driver at the JPL, told Spectrum. "We didn’t know we were going to love it."
As the publication pointed out, Ingenuity's timeline has been repeatedly extended, first from 30 days to a few months, and now indefinitely. That's been "a big surprise," Olivier said.
Extended missions are nothing new for the JPL, the rover driver noted, but the limits of Ingenuity's design mean that it could last for months or years more — or die at any moment.
"Ingenuity's achievements cannot be overstated, and it will be remembered as one of the great pioneering vessels of all time," Hamilton told UPI. "One day, Ingenuity will make its last flight on the Red Planet, but it will not be the last aircraft to fly on Mars — it's just the beginning."
If that's not enough to make astrophysicists cry, I don't know what is.
READ MORE: NASA's eventual farewell to tiny Mars helicopter could be emotional [UPI]
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