Ingenuity Mars Helicopter makes first one-way trip on fifth test flight
NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has successfully flown for the fifth time. The tiny autonomous rotorcraft lifted off from Wright Brothers Field in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet for a 108-second flight that took it on a one-way trip to a new airfield 423 ft (129 m) to the south.
The latest flight by Ingenuity on May 7, 2021 at 3:26 pm EDT not only marks the start of a more ambitious phase of its testing program, but also produced more aerospace firsts. Where the previous flights focused on the technology of the robotic helicopter, the new phase will look more at possible applications for future planetary missions.
Flying at an altitude of 33 ft (10 m), the fifth flight marks the first time that an aircraft has made a trip to a new destination on another planet. In addition, the new airfield was selected from images captured by Ingenuity on previous flights in the first aerial scouting mission off the Earth. These images allowed mission planners to produce stereo images and seek out a new area that was flat and free of obstructions.
Aside from testing Ingenuity's ability to fly and carry out precision maneuvers, the fifth flight had a practical goal. Since the purpose of the nuclear-powered Perseverance rover is to rove, Ingenuity needs to be able to follow along so that Perseverance can continue to relay data to Mission Control and commands back to the helicopter. Though Perseverance will make a long-distance drive as it begins its science mission, it will only take short rolls during Ingenuity's tests, so the rotorcraft can keep pace.
"The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations," says Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. "We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets."