Ingenuity helicopter lands new job as scout after "resounding success"
NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity has been given a new mission after acing its historic test flights. The drone will soon embark on some one-way flights to demonstrate its ability to act as a scout for the Perseverance rover.
Ingenuity made history on April 19 with the first powered flight on another planet. In the weeks since, the little helicopter has taken to the Martian skies three more times, adding horizontal flight to its repertoire and increasing its distance, flight time and air speed.
The original plan was to fly Ingenuity several times during its 30-day mission, within an airspace designated the Wright Brothers Field, named of course for the pioneers of powered flight here on Earth. But having exceeded expectations, NASA has now extended the mission and plans to have the drone leave the Field.
The fourth flight, which took place Friday April 30, saw Ingenuity travel about 133 m (436 ft) to the south to scout a new potential landing zone, before returning to Wright Brothers Field. The fifth flight, still upcoming, would see the helicopter heading off on a one-way journey to land at this new site.
If the helicopter remains in good working condition after that, the next phase of its mission can begin. Ingenuity would make short hops ahead of Perseverance to help plot a course for the rover, identifying potential hazards and science targets. At the same time, it can also capture stereoscopic images to create digital elevation maps.
“The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritizing and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”
During this mission the frequency of the flights will drop from their current rate of every few days to once every two or three weeks. This phase may begin in around two weeks, and should wrap up by the end of August. After that, the science team will prepare for a pause in mid-October, when communications will be interrupted due to Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun.
Beyond that, the future of Ingenuity remains unknown, but even if that turns out to be the end of the story this impressive feat of engineering will leave a legacy that could inform Mars exploration for decades to come.