Ingenuity’s Next Flight on Mars Could Be Its Most Interesting Yet

Ingenuity’s Next Flight on Mars Could Be Its Most Interesting Yet
An illustration of the indomitable Martian helicopter Ingenuity. (Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The flimsy-looking but impressively tenacious Ingenuity has booked its sixth flight on Mars. Slated for sometime next week, this flight will be the first of the helicopter’s new demonstration phase, following five successful test flights that proved the feasibility of powered, controlled flight on the Red Planet.

Ingenuity is currently roosting on a new airfield about 120 metres from Wright Brothers Field, from which it launched its earlier flights. It moved to stay close to Perseverance rover, which, now busy with its own mission, will no longer take photos of the helicopter’s escapades. The rover will instead focus on science, searching the rocky remnants of a Martian river delta for fossilised life.

NASA outlined the flight plan in a press release published this week. The helicopter’s sixth flight will see it rise to the 10 metre altitude it previously attained on flight five and then fly nearly 150 metres southwest, snap some stereoscopic images of an area of interest for future missions, and then head back some 50 metres to touch down on a new airfield, called Field C. While Ingenuity’s team will continue to raise the stakes for how far, fast, and high the little helicopter moves, the primary purpose of the effort is to test the craft’s applications as a Martian scout.

The stereo images will focus on ripples of sand and some rock outcrops, regions of interest for NASA; Ingenuity’s preview of them will serve as an example of how an aerial scout can support Martian rovers by locating the smoothest routes, potentially saving precious sols worth of commuting time. As reported by CNN, images from the helicopter will take longer to get back to Earth, given that Perseverance acts as an operator for Ingenuity’s calls home. Now that there’s more distance between the helicopter and the rover, the data will downlink a tad slower.

Ingenuity’s speed during the next demonstration will be 14 km per hour and will last 140 seconds, just passing its record top speed of 13 km per hour and setting a new record for time in the air. It will also be the first time Ingenuity lands in a place it didn’t previously scout from the air. The Ingenuity team is relying on images taken by NASA’s Mars Orbiter to certify the ground is a solid spot to touch down. There is currently no established date for the flight; it will depend on the fickle Martian weather.