The NASA device may have seen some delays in its fourth flight, but with that safely, the next major missions of the Mars helicopter have been revealed. The fourth mission for the historic aircraft was the most ambitious to date, using its dual cameras to emphasize how valuable an eye in the sky can be for future space missions. Still, even more adventures alongside the Perseverance rover are yet to come, NASA confirmed.
Having traveled to Mars in the belly of the space vehicle, Ingenuity has already had a month full of adventures. His first flight test demonstrated that the twin-rotor aircraft was, in fact, capable of flying with an engine and controlled on the planet, despite differences in gravity and air density.
NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which is responsible for managing the rover and helicopter, followed that maiden flight with two more missions, each adding to the challenges. Ingenuity showed that he could fly higher and farther, each time, with Perseverance watching with his MastCam-Z cameras through the Jezero crater. For the fourth flight, however, it would be Ingenuity’s own cameras that would be the main attraction.
The Ingenuity Flight Four started with the helicopter rising 16 feet above the surface of the planet. It was supposed to fly south over rocks, sand waves and small impact craters, until it was 276 feet from its launch position. After that, he would fly another 150 feet, with the downward-facing navigation camera used to capture images every 4 feet of ground below.
Ingenuity should then hover and use the color camera to capture images, before returning to its original launch position. This was called the Wright Brothers Field, in honor of the first motorized flight on Earth.
The mission was to cover a series of extra obstacles in relation to the first three. Not only would the flight time increase, with NASA predicting it would take almost two minutes in total, the maximum speed would increase to 8 mph from the previous maximum of 4.5 mph. The total flight range would also more than double.
The original JPL plan was for it to take place on Thursday this week, April 29. The device was programmed with the details of the flight – since the latency between Earth and Mars is too great for the JPL team to fly the helicopter manually, in real time – but when the data started to return from the programmed downlink, it was discovered that takeoff never really happened.
“The helicopter is safe and in good health,” said the JPL team on Thursday. “Data returned during a downlink at 1:21 pm. EDT (10:21 am PDT) indicates that the helicopter has not transitioned to flight mode, which is necessary for the flight to take place. “
The mission was rescheduled for today and went smoothly. “[The] Mars helicopter has completed its fourth flight, going further and faster than ever,” tweeted the JPL team. “He also took more pictures while flying over the Martian surface. We expect these images to appear in a later data downlink, but Hazcam from Perseverance took part of the flight. “
Ingenuity Missions Five and Six: Time to prove your worth
With four flights in its metaphorical belt, Ingenuity’s responsibilities are being updated. NASA added a demonstration of operations to the mission, “exploring how air patrol and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds”.
It will start with the sixth flight of the helicopter. The fifth mission will see Ingenuity depart for a one-way trip, landing in a new location from where it will support Perseverance while the rover starts its own scientific experiments. The team responsible for this is already building a list of sites for sampling rocks and sediments, while Perseverance begins its search for ancestral microscopic life.
It has already moved from its original location to a new area identified as a potentially good place to start sampling. Still, it’s only 33 feet of driving, and more trips are planned soon. “We will spend the next two hundred suns running our first scientific campaign in search of interesting rocky outcrops along this piece of 2km crater ground,” Ken Farley, project scientist for Caltech’s Perseverance rover in Pasadena, California, said of the change, “before probably heading north and then west towards the fossil river delta of the Jezero crater”.
The role of ingenuity will be to provide aerial reconnaissance. The helicopter can fly ahead to the next destination on the Perseverance roadmap, delivering photos back to NASA and JPL that can help identify possible scientific targets, highlight the routes the rover can take, and even signal inaccessible or possible resources dangers. Stereo images can be used for digital elevation maps.
The flights to Ingenuity will slow, it is expected, from the cadence of few days that NASA has maintained until now, to once every two or three weeks. They will also be done with the utmost safety in mind: ingenuity can be at risk, as its primary objective of proving that the flight was successful has been achieved, but NASA is not risking an accident or similar accident harming Perseverance. Even if something goes wrong, it will not hinder the rover project: “these reconnaissance flights are a bonus,” points out NASA, “and not a requirement for Perseverance to complete its scientific mission.”
Still, there is a deadline on the calendar just the same. The goal is to end flight operations by the end of August, before the solar conjunction in mid-October. At that point, Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun, which means that there will be no communication between NASA, the rover or the helicopter.