The Ingenuity helicopter proved that it could fly over Mars. He now has higher goals. Passed all the original engineering tests, the small spaceship will now begin a new job, supporting the rover Perseverance in its scientific mission.
“It’s like ingenuity is graduating,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in an informational report on April 30th.
The helicopter arrived on Mars with two main objectives: to prove that flight was possible on the Red Planet and to show that it could return critical flight data to Earth. Both were achieved on the first Ingenuity flight on April 19 and then overtaken when the helicopter flew farther, higher and faster on April 22 and 25 (SN: 19/04/21).
The original plan was for the Wit to take up to six flights in total, then land forever as Perseverance drifted away to do science. This was in part because the Perseverance team hoped to head away from the rover’s landing site in search of rocks that could preserve signs of past Martian life (SN: 22/02/21).
Sign up to receive the latest from Science News
Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered in your inbox
“We thought we would do an intensive driving campaign in which the helicopter would not be able to keep pace,” said Persaltance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech. "But based on the rocks we saw in the area, we really wanted to spend considerable time where we are."
The ingenuity also worked surprisingly well, Aung said. The rover and helicopter could communicate more than a mile away, giving the two more flexibility.
The craft took its fourth flight on April 30 to look for a new launch pad. The fifth flight, which will be scheduled after the team examines the data, will be a one-way trip to that new home.
After that, the Wit will switch to assistance mode. So far, the Perseverance team has generously supported the helicopter, Aung said. “The rover is the main one in the future,” he said.
The helicopter will have future flights in support mode. The team says the device will explore potential scientific observations and rover routes from the sky, make digital 3D elevation maps, and take a look at places a rover can’t go. “The lessons learned from that exercise will greatly benefit future missions with aerial platforms,” Aung said.
The team is not sure how the helicopter mission will end. The device was designed to last only 30 Martian days. The new support phase will extend its mission for another 30 days, unless something goes wrong sooner. “We don’t know how many cycles of freezing and thawing can happen before something breaks,” Chief Engineer Bob Balaram said.