Today, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter completed its fifth flight on Mars, flying from Wright Brothers Field to an airfield 423 feet (129 meters) at a height of 16 feet to the south, retracing its previous flight route.
Until touching down, Ingenuity climbed to an altitude record of 33 feet (10 meters) above another flat patch of Mars more than the length of a football field and took high-resolution color photographs of its new neighborhood. It then came to a stop 108 seconds after taking off.
For at least the next month, it will operate from the place where it landed, starting a new phase of the journey in which it will act as a scout for its larger robotic companion, the Perseverance rover.
Ingenuity, like the previous four flights, flew autonomously, with no assistance or contact from people on Earth, following a flight plan sent hours before.
Engineers had to wait more than three hours after Ingenuity had landed before receiving word of the mission’s progress, which was transmitted from Ingenuity to Perseverance to an orbiter passing overhead, and then to Earth.
The flight marks the start of the rotorcraft’s latest operations demonstration process. This step will look into the capabilities that a rotorcraft operating from Mars might have.
Scouting, aerial surveys of areas not accessible by a rover, and detailed stereo imagery from high altitudes are only a few examples. These missions, as well as the lessons gained from them, may have a big impact on potential aerial exploration of Mars and other planets.
Ingenuity is a $85 million add-on project to the $2.7 billion Perseverance mission, which is looking for evidence of past life on Mars. It stands 1.6 feet tall and weighs four pounds. The helicopter was concealed under the rover’s belly when it landed on Mars in February.
“The fifth flight of the Mars Helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”
The Ingenuity team had a month and up to five flights after the helicopter was lowered onto the ground in early April, according to NASA’s original plans, to demonstrate that controlled, powered flight was possible on Mars, where the atmosphere at the surface is only 1% as dense as Earth’s. Ingenuity was supposed to be left behind, and Perseverance was supposed to go on a scientific expedition.
However, NASA’s mission managers changed their minds.
Ingenuity was almost perfect in its execution. The first flight consisted of a fast up-and-down. Following flights went farther afield, achieving all of the initial objectives.
The power system, heaters, navigation system, and rotors were all functioning properly, according to Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering lead.
This opened the door to using Ingenuity not only as a proof of basic technology, and to provide aerial reconnaissance of the surrounding landscape for the Perseverance scientists, who have finally agreed that they want the rover to explore the neighboring areas for some months.
The fourth flight scouted a new landing spot for the helicopter. “The digital elevation maps put together by the Ingenuity team gave us confidence that our new airfield is flat as a pancake — a good thing when you have to land on it,” Mr. Ravich said.
Perseverance, parked more than 250 feet away from the helicopter during the fourth flight, successfully captured the sound of Ingenuity’s rotors slicing through the Martian air.
“We have been lucky to register the helicopter at such a distance,” the science lead for the microphone, David Mimoun, said in a NASA news release. “This recording will be a gold mine for our understanding of the Martian atmosphere.”
Following Ingenuity’s relocation to its new base, the Perseverance team’s attention now turns to its research studies, which were largely put on hold during the test flights.
“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations,” said Bob Balaram, the chief engineer of the helicopter, in a NASA release following the flight.
This month, Ingenuity is only supposed to fly one or two more times, depending on Perseverance’s schedule.
If all goes well, Ingenuity and Perseverance will be able to travel through Mars together.