After what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, it goes without saying that a little helicopter built by NASA can pack a big punch. The space agency’s Ingenuity helicopter nailed its fifth scheduled flight on Mars on Friday and completed its initial objectives. It will now embark on a new mission on the faraway planet.
For its fifth scheduled flight, Ingenuity embarked on its first one-way trip from Wright Brothers Field, or official take off and landing site, to another airfield 129 metres to the south. Once it arrived at its new airfield, the little chopper rose to an altitude of 10 metres — a new record for Ingenuity — and shot some high-resolution photos of its “new neighbourhood,” as NASA describes it, before landing. The flight lasted a total of 108 seconds.
“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft,” Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news statement.
When compared to Ingenuity’s fourth successful flight, the fifth flight was a little shorter in both distance and time. In its fourth flight, it travelled 266 metres roundtrip in 117 seconds. On Friday though, Ingenuity did fly twice as high, going from five metres in the fourth flight to 10 metres in the fifth flight.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean the helicopter’s fifth flight was any less impressive or difficult. The Ingenuity team chose the helicopter’s new airfield based on the information gathered in its fourth flight, which allowed them to create digital elevation maps. The maps indicated that the new site was composed of almost completely flat terrain with no obstructions, an important factor when it comes to landing Ingenuity. According to NASA, this was the first “aerial scout” operation on another planet.
Ingenuity will now allow NASA to analyse how operations with next-generation helicopters could benefit future exploration of Mars. Although Ingenuity arrived on Mars as a technology demonstration — or a project with a limited scope that seeks to test a capability for the first time — seeking to attempt controlled flight on another planet, it received a new mission at the end of April.
The new mission consists of an operations demonstration phase. This phase will focus on studying what kind of capabilities a rotorcraft can provide on Mars missions, such as scouting, aerial observation of areas rovers can’t get to, and detailed stereo imaging from atmospheric altitudes.
Some of you might be asking, why did Ingenuity have to move airfields at all? First off, Ingenuity already completed everything it was sent to do in its 31-Earth-day demonstration window, so anything it does from now on is a delightful bonus for all of us here on Earth and, of course, for science.
However, in order to go ahead with its operations demonstration phase, Ingenuity has to stay close to its friend — or as I like to say, its proud parent — the Perseverance rover. Perseverance functions as a communications relay between Ingenuity, Mars orbiters, and mission controllers on Earth. The rover has its own schedule to follow on its journey to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars, study the planet’s climate and geology, and collect samples for a future return to Earth.
“We are travelling to a new base because this is the direction Perseverance is going, and if we want to continue to demonstrate what can be done from an aerial perspective, we have to go where the rover goes,” Josh Ravich, Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update.
NASA has stated that flights during Ingenuity’s operations demonstration phase will slow from once every few days to once every two or three weeks. They will also be scheduled so that they won’t interfere with Perseverance’s science operations. The Ingenuity team will assess flight operations after 30 Sols, or 31 Earth days, and will complete them by no later than the end of August.
In the announcement about Ingenuity’s new mission over the next few weeks, MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said her team greatly appreciated the support offered by the Perseverance rover team during Ingenuity’s technology demonstration phase.
“Now we have a chance to pay it forward, demonstrating for future robotic and even crewed missions the benefits of having a partner nearby that can provide a different perspective–one from the sky,” Aung said. “We are going to take this opportunity and run with it–and fly with it.”