NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter has made its fifth flight on the Mars surface. The helicopter’s latest flight marks the first time it has completed a one-way journey, with Ingenuity resettling 129 meters south of its former home – the aptly named Wright Brother Field.
The chief engineer for Ingenuity, Bob Balaram, said,
“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft”.
There will be more test flights in the upcoming weeks, according to the team behind the helicopter, JPL. Ingenuity accompanied the Perseverance rover on its Mars exploration mission, which landed on the red planet on February 18th, 2021.
Finding a new home
Ingenuity has kept audiences back home entertained with its four previous test flights this past month. But this latest adventure marks a significant milestone for the solar-powered helicopter – settling in a different area on Mars.
Information gathered on Ingenuity’s previous flight helped the team back home select the new landing site. An “aerial scout” based on Mars meant that the NASA team could produce digital elevation maps. These were vital for finding obstruction-free, flat ground where Ingenuity could land.
The flight lasted a tense 108 seconds after taking off at 12:33 pm local Mars time. But after landing successfully, the NASA team back on Earth can celebrate another successful step for the project.
The flight also had further benefits for the mission. The journey showed Ingenuity’s successful transition to a new operations demonstration phase. Investigating the benefits of a helicopter on the surface of Mars is now the primary task for the NASA team.
Amongst these benefits is the ability to scout out the previously unreachable areas and produce detailed stereo imaging of the landscape. Before landing, Ingenuity took high-resolution pictures of its new airfield from an altitude of 33 feet.
The next phase
NASA is using the new demonstration to gauge the benefits of aerial missions on different planets. They hope that the lessons learnt from Ingenuity will inform future projects such as the Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander, which will travel to Jupiter’s moon, Titan, in 2027.
Ingenuity is currently awaiting further commands from the NASA team, with the Perseverance rover also travelling south to join the helicopter. Ingenuity will start to make more one-way flights in the upcoming weeks.
While discussing the future operations Balaram, said,
“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”.
However, the new responsibilities bring a greater risk for the small aircraft, and Balaram added,
“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations”.
Building a space helicopter
It took a sustained effort over many years to construct an aircraft capable of traversing Mars’ harsh landscape and thin rarefied atmosphere. JPL engineers and other NASA employees worked tirelessly over the last eight years, testing various prototypes in space simulation chambers.
This observed the aircraft’s structural strength, how its landing gear would cope on the Martian surface, and whether it could handle higher radiation levels. These tests all ensured that Ingenuity has the best chance possible of succeeding in its mission.
There were vital conditions that the aircraft was required to meet before the Mars 2020 mission could take place. One of these is the ability to survive in Mars’ -62°C average climate. Each component needed proofing for the extreme cold before the aircraft could pass its final evaluation.
The helicopter was subject to thermal tests to see its resilience against Martian night-time, where the temperature drops exponentially lower. One of Ingenuity’s key features is a programmable thermostat, maintaining its temperature perennially and preventing damage.
However, this also necessitated specially designed batteries and solar panels so that the aircraft’s components can be self-sustaining during its tenure on Mars.
These features are part of the inspiration behind the helicopter’s iconic name – picked as a selection from NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest. Vaneeza Ruppani, an 11th-grade high school student in Northport, Alabama, originally suggested Ingenuity as the name for the Perseverance Rover.
But officials at NASA used the high schooler’s suggestion for the helicopter instead, feeling that the name perfectly captured the creative spirit and innovation that went into the production process for the one-of-a-kind Mars helicopter.
Words by Jonathan Ritchie