December 7, 2023

This time NASA’s Mars robotic helicopter Ingenuity did not return.

That was intentional.

On Friday, Ingenuity, which last month became the first machine to fly like an airplane or a helicopter on another world, took off for the fifth time. It was a successful one-way trip to another flat patch of Mars more than the length of a soccer field away. The location it landed will serve as the base of operations for at least the next month, beginning a new phase of the mission in which it will serve as a scout for its larger robotic companion, the Perseverance rover.

The ingenuity followed the course of its previous flight, heading south for 423 feet at an altitude of 16 feet. But instead of turning around, it stopped and rose to 33 feet to snap some pictures of the area. It then settled 108 seconds after launch.

As with the previous four flights, Ingenuity flew autonomously, with no help or communication from humans on Earth, and executed a flight plan that had been broadcast hours earlier. The engineers had to wait more than three hours after Ingenuity had already landed before the news of the success was relayed from Ingenuity to Perseverance to an orbiter that flew over us and then to Earth.

Ingenuity, 1.6 feet tall and four pounds, is a $ 85 million add-on to the $ 2.7 billion Perseverance mission that looks for signs of past lives on Mars. The helicopter traveled to Mars, hidden under the belly of the rover that landed on Mars in February.

In NASA’s original plans, after the helicopter was dropped in early April, the Ingenuity team had a month and up to five flights to demonstrate that controlled, motorized flight was possible on Mars, where the atmosphere on the surface was only 1 Percent is as dense as the earth. Ingenuity should be left behind, and perseverance would have set out to carry out his scientific explorations.

But the managers of the mission at NASA have changed their minds.

Ingenuity flew almost flawlessly. The first flight was a short up and down. Subsequent flights ventured further into the distance and reached all original destinations.

In a blog post, Joshua Ravich, General Manager of Mechanical Engineering at Ingenuity, said the power system, heaters, navigation system, and rotors all worked fine. “Our helicopter is even more robust than we had hoped,” he wrote.

This opened the door to use Ingenuity not only as evidence of the base technology, but also to give an aerial reconnaissance of the surrounding landscape to the Perseverance scientists, who decided that the rover would explore the adjacent areas for several months.

The fourth flight was looking for a new place to land the helicopter. “The digital elevation maps compiled by the Ingenuity team gave us confidence that our new airfield would be flat as a pancake – a good thing if you need to land on it,” said Ravich.

During the fourth flight, Perseverance, parked more than 250 feet from the helicopter, successfully recorded the sound of Ingenuity’s rotors slicing through the Martian air.

“We were lucky enough to register the helicopter at such a distance,” said David Mimoun, scientific director of the microphone, in a NASA press release. “This shot will be a gold mine for our understanding of the Martian atmosphere.”

After Ingenuity moved to its new base, the focus of the Perseverance team has now shifted to its scientific studies, which were largely put on hold during the test flights.

“The plan is to fly Ingenuity in a way that doesn’t slow the pace of scientific operations to persistence,” said Bob Balaram, the helicopter’s chief engineer, in a post-flight NASA publication.

Ingenuity is expected to make just one more flight or two this month, taking off when there is time for Perseverance’s other activities.

But if all goes well, Ingenuity could persistently continue to work together in the Martian landscape.