NASA reported last week that its Ingenuity Mars helicopter failed to lift off for its fourth flight, but it succeeded early on Friday. Now, NASA has confirmed that it will be adding a new component to Ingenuity’s Mars mission — it’s no longer just a technology demonstration, and it’ll get extra flight time on the red planet as an “operations demonstration.”
Ingenuity rode to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which is the primary robotic explorer for this mission. Ingenuity was added as a technology demonstration as mentioned above, and the team doesn’t expect it to survive its first winter on Mars. That’s why we’ve been hearing so much about the historic Mars helicopter — the team wants to fit in as many flights as possible before the drone stops working.
The fourth flight went exactly to plan: Ingenuity remained airborne for 117 seconds and covered 266 meters. NASA now says Ingenuity is working so well that it’s transitioning it to an “operations demonstration” mission, and Perseverance will adjust the start of its mission to continue supporting the helicopter, which has rapidly become the star of the show. It was initially slated for a month of flight operations before Perseverance moved on, but now it could continue flying through late summer.
Ingenuity was designed with off-the-shelf hardware such as a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor, so it doesn’t have bulky communication equipment to reach Earth. Instead, it relays data to Perseverance over the Zigbee wireless communication standard. So, Perseverance has to stay close, which means it has not been able to start its primary science operations. Luckily, the team has found the region around Wright Brothers Field to be more interesting than expected. So, Perseverance will trundle around there and do some science while it supports Ingenuity for a bit longer.
The Perseverance rover is setting a course south, aiming for deposits near Wright Brothers Field that could be of scientific importance. Ingenuity has one more flight in the technology demo phase, and the sixth flight in about two weeks will mark the beginning of the operations test. This phase will consist of longer one-way flights that see the helicopter touch down near the rover’s next parking spot. Along the way, it will continue to gather more flight data to inform the design of future flying explorers and make greater use of its surface observation and landing systems.
These flights will pose a much greater risk, but the helicopter doesn’t have long to live anyway. NASA will evaluate the results of the operations demo after 30 sols (Martian days), and Ingenuity’s flight operations should be done no later than August.