After an outstanding 2021 in which it surpassed all expectations, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is about to embark on its first flight of the new year.
On January 7 or soon after, Ingenuity will fire up its rotors once again and fly from its current location in the South Séítah basin toward the Jezero river delta on what will be its 19th flight to date.
Imagery captured by the helicopter along the way will help mission planners to devise a route for the Perseverance rover, which is heading to the delta as part of its search for evidence of ancient life on the red planet.
Ingenuity will fly 207 feet (63 meters) over the martian surface at an altitude of 33 feet (10 meters) and a speed of about 2.2 mph (1 meter per second). The trip is likely to last around 100 seconds. Shortly before touching down, the helicopter will perform a 180-degree turn to flip its high-resolution Return-To-Earth (RTE) camera to a forward-facing orientation for future flights toward the river delta.
“While short, the flight has a challenging start due to featureless sandy terrain that the helicopter currently sits on,” said Martin Cacan, Ingenuity pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the mission. “Initially chosen for the lack of rocks to land safely, the area is actually so devoid of rock that warnings were reported during the Flight 18 landing due to insufficient features to track in the vision navigation. As a result, fault protection parameters will be updated to mitigate the risk of a premature landing mid-ascent.”
Ingenuity made history in April last year when it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet, proving itself able to handle the planet’s thin atmosphere and cold conditions. The 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter has since been buzzing across the martian surface on a regular basis, allowing NASA engineers to learn as much as possible about its performance and design ahead of developing a more advanced aircraft for future planetary missions.
Ingenuity reached a remarkable milestone in December when its total time flight time on Mars hit 30 minutes, with the helicopter now having flown well over 2 miles (3,218 meters) at heights of up to 40 feet (12 meters) and as fast as 10 mph (5 meters per second).
“Few thought we would make it to flight one, fewer still to five. And no one thought we would make it this far,” Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of JPL said recently.
He added that along the way, Ingenuity has managed to handle differing atmospheric conditions caused by seasonal variations while operating out of nine unique martian airfields.
The aircraft has also managed to overcome several issues that, had they been more serious, could have grounded the helicopter for good.
Making it to 2022 is a big achievement and the team will now be looking to push Ingenuity to even greater limits in the coming months while at the same time assisting Perseverance by checking the safety of proposed routes from the air.