Ingenuity nailed its latest hop after a one-day delay. With four flights under its wings, the tiny helicopter will now move from a technology demonstration to a measure of its ability to operate alongside the Perseverance rover.
The 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) chopper lifted off from Mars’ Jezero Crater at 10:49 a.m. ET (7:49 a.m. PT) on Friday, April 30 and rose to a height of 5 meters. It then flew 133 meters south before returning to its original location and landing, having spent a total of 117 seconds in the air, which is the longest time so far.
The fourth flight was supposed to take place on April 29, but telemetry from the helicopter later that day revealed that it never took off. The helicopter was grounded due to a timer problem, similar to one discovered during a pre-flight test in early April, according to project engineers.
They devised a method of circumventing the timer glitch without having to update the helicopter’s software, which they claimed would function 85 percent of the time.
“There is a bug, and this is a workaround for the bug,” Bob Balaram, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ingenuity chief engineer, said during a press conference on the helicopter on April 30, just before data confirming the successful flight arrived on Earth. “It worked out perfectly well three times and yesterday it didn’t quite work.”
With the fourth flight completed successfully, Ingenuity can now move on to the next step of its mission. NASA had intended to perform up to five test flights over the course of 30 sols, or Martian days, during which the project will be completed regardless of the helicopter’s condition. This will allow the Perseverance rover to focus on its primary science mission rather than supporting the helicopter flights.
Officials from JPL, however, stated at the briefing that Ingenuity will continue to work beyond the original month. “After assessing the Perseverance science strategy, there’s room to expand the Ingenuity demonstration into a new phase,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Perseverance’s research mission will be supported by Ingenuity in this new demonstration. “We will now concentrate on the utility of an aerial platform, and work on operational products,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity. This will include scouting routes for the rover and aerial measurements of research objectives for the rover.
This effort will begin with the helicopter’s next flight, which is scheduled to take place in about a week. Photos taken on the fourth flight will be used by the project team to find a new “airfield,” or landing site, for Ingenuity. The helicopter will then fly one way from its current landing zone to the new one, which will serve as the mission’s base of operations for the next step.
Because of Ingenuity’s outstanding results, the mission has been expanded. “The technical performance has been fantastic, and exceeding all of our expectations,” Balaram said. “We had in our mind that there would be some issues.” The only issue, he said, was the timer glitch.
He pointed out that the solar-powered helicopter has no consumables that would shorten its lifespan. The main issue is likely thermal stresses from Mars’ day-night cycle affecting commercial off-the-shelf helicopter parts. “The expectation is that with enough thermal cycling, something — a joint or something — will snap at some point,” he said.
Another significant factor that caused the mission to be extended was a change in Perseverance’s plans. “At first, we thought we’d be driving away from where we landed,” Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance rover deputy project manager, explained. Instead, scientists want to stay for months in the field, collecting the first samples that the rover can store for later return to Earth.
During this organizational demonstration, however, ingenuity activities will be restricted in order to minimize the impact on Perseverance. Ingenuity had been flying every three or four days, but once the helicopter flies to its new airfield, the mission plans only one or two flights for the next month. Perseverance will also not be photographing the helicopter in flight, as it did previously.
“We are hoping we can operate Ingenuity in a not-to-interfere basis with the science mission, in a way that, as long as it’s available and alive, that we’ll be able to continue,” Trosper stated.
That operational demonstration is scheduled to last 30 sols, but NASA is willing to extend it if the helicopter remains in good condition and is assisting Perseverance. “We’re going to watch the performance, see what kind of data products we can get back, and see how the two flight systems interact,” Glaze said.
“After that 30-sol period, we’ll assess where we are.” Glaze also noted that because of the slower pace of operations, the extended mission will have a “very minimal” cost.
“We really do expect some finite life” for Ingenuity, Aung went on to say, “so it will be a race between how long these parts surprise us in surviving and, in doing these operational scenarios, we will naturally be pushing the limits of Ingenuity.”