After acing a set of historic test flights on Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will embark on a new, more advanced test mission, engineers said today. Having proved itself capable of flying higher and farther with its fourth flight on Friday, the mini helicopter will get ready to demonstrate how it could help Mars rovers, like Perseverance, scout for new locations and probe areas inaccessible to wheeled robots.
Ingenuity, which became the first helicopter to fly on another world earlier this month, was initially set to retire forever when its flight demonstration phase ends next week, after completing five flights. But the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory okayed another round of testing because Perseverance’s post-landing health checks are ahead of schedule — and Ingenuity isn’t ready to put its twin carbon fiber rotor blades to rest yet.
For the first (and current) test phase, the four-pound helicopter proved it’s possible to achieve powered lift in the thin Martian atmosphere, opening up a new mode of transportation for planetary exploration. The next test phase will be slightly different, and more ambitious, than the first: Ingenuity will observe specific science targets on Mars, scout for interesting locations for Perseverance, and look for new potential flight zones for future flights.
“The lessons learned from that exercise will benefit future missions with aerial platforms tremendously,” said MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s project manager, adding that the craft’s test capabilities will be pushed with each flight. This phase will only contain one or two flights, spaced further apart. But engineers signaled more could be planned depending on the helicopter’s performance. And Perseverance, acting as Ingenuity’s comms mothership from a distance of a few hundred feet, won’t use its onboard cameras to take photos of the helicopter, as it’s doing for the first phase.
Since deploying from the belly of Perseverance on April 4th, Ingenuity has nailed four flight tests so far, each with increasing complexity: The first flight was a 40-second hover 10 feet above the ground, and its third flight rose 16 feet, then zipped 164 feet across its flight zone at about 4.5 miles per hour. Ingenuity made its fourth flight on Friday, and engineers are currently analyzing troves of data.
Perseverance landed on Mars with Ingenuity on February 18th. The rover’s primary mission is to hunt for signs of fossilized life and pack soil samples into cigar-sized tubes to leave scattered around the Martian surface. A future “fetch” rover will retrieve those tubes sometime in the next decade or so. The recent decision to collect those soil samples near Ingenuity’s flight zone helped NASA make the call to keep Ingenuity in service — suddenly, having Perseverance stick around to keep tabs on the helicopter’s health became possible.
Ingenuity’s fourth test flight demonstrated farther and faster travel, and served as a scout mission for the flight zone it’ll use for its next testing phase. Its fifth flight, scheduled to take place in the coming days, will be a one-way trip to that new location.