Mars helicopter successfully flies to a new destination

It’s the little chopper that could.

After four historic flights, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully flew to a new destination. The 4-pound chopper conducted a one-way flight to its new airfield on Friday.

As with previous flights, Ingenuity took off from Wright Brothers Field, but it’s not coming back.

This time, Ingenuity ascended 16 feet (5 meters) in the air and flew 423 feet (129 meters) south. This retraces the path the helicopter made during its fourth flight while scouting for the next location.

Then, the rotorcraft climbed to a new height record of 33 feet (10 meters) to take color and black-and-white images of this new airfield.

After logging a flight of 108 seconds, Ingenuity landed in its new home.

“The fifth flight of the Mars Helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, in a statement. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”

The flight began at 3:26 p.m. ET or 12:33 p.m. local Mars time. Data streamed back in to the control room where the mission is managed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, around 7:31 p.m. ET.

“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,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “No matter where we go from here, we will always carry with us a reminder of how much those two bicycle builders from Dayton meant to us during our pursuit of the first flight on another world.”

The Perseverance rover, which has been capturing video and images of the helicopter’s flights, also shared audio it collected from Ingenuity’s fourth flight using the rover’s microphones.

This is the first time a spacecraft on another planet has recorded the sounds of a separate spacecraft. Perseverance was able to pick up the subtle hum of the helicopter while parked 262 feet (80 meters) away.

Over the course of its aerial excursions, Ingenuity has demonstrated that powered, controlled flight is possible on another planet. The Mars helicopter also has met each challenge to fly faster, longer and further than the previous flight.

“The Wrights did that, too,” wrote Josh Ravich, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter mechanical engineering lead at JPL, in an update about the helicopter. “They didn’t quit after one successful flight with Flyer I, or even the other three flights they did on that historic December day in 1903.”

The Wright brothers flew higher and farther using upgraded versions of the Flyer in 1904 and 1905 and carried their first air passenger in 1908.

“In a sense, over the course of three weeks and four flights, the Ingenuity team has gone from the Wright brothers of 1903 to the Wright brothers of 1908, but in weeks rather than years,” Ravich wrote.

Ingenuity is holding up well on Mars, and its power system is providing enough energy to keep the chopper warm during frigid Martian nights and fly during the day.

“Our helicopter is even more robust than we had hoped,” Ravich wrote.

Ingenuity isn’t just making history, but it carries some history with it. A postage stamp-size piece of muslin that covered one of the wings from the Wright brothers’ Flyer 1 is attached to a cable beneath the helicopter’s solar panel. Ravich and test engineer and fellow teammate Chris Lefler attached the material to the Ingenuity while it was being built on Earth.

“The Wrights showed what could be accomplished with a combination of teamwork, creativity, and tenacity — and a bit of ingenuity and perseverance,” Ravich wrote.

“On flight day, when I look around the room and online at our team, I see a lot of the same sort of vision and tenacity/spirit that made the Wright brothers who they were. Together, we are continuing our Wright brothers moments on Mars.”

New phase of exploration

Now that the fifth flight is complete, Ingenuity will begin a new phase and fly for at least another month on Mars, transitioning from a technology demonstration to an operations demonstration.

The new operations phase will last for 30 Martian sols, or 31 Earth days, in addition to the initial 30 sols that Ingenuity was designed for as a tech demo. If Ingenuity is still capable of flight beyond these 60 sols, the phase may be extended, according to the helicopter team.

During the new phase, Ingenuity will focus on aerial observation of specific scientific targets using its cameras, looking at features not accessible by rovers like Perseverance, as well as scouting for potentially intriguing scientific sites. The helicopter also will seek out a new airfield to travel to and conduct more test flights.

The continuation of Ingenuity’s mission will proceed as long as it remains on a “not to interfere” basis with the science mission of the Perseverance rover.

“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science 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. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.”

While Ingenuity conducted its initial flights, the rover remained perched at an overlook to take video and images, preventing it from doing much else.

Now, it’s time to prepare Perseverance to investigate intriguing rocks and sample them so that future missions can return them to Earth in the search for evidence of ancient microbial life beyond our planet.

Perseverance will spend the next couple hundred sols exploring a 1.24-mile (2-kilometer) patch of Jezero Crater’s floor. Members of the science team believe they will find some of the oldest material in the crater, the site of a 3.9-billion-year-old lake bed.

Ingenuity won’t require as much support from the rover during the operations phase, freeing up the rover to embark on its main quest.

“We are traveling to a new base because this is the direction Perseverance is going, and if we want to continue to demonstrate what can be done from an aerial perspective, we have to go where the rover goes,” Ravich wrote. “The Wrights did the same in 1908 — even traveling all the way to LeMans, France, to demonstrate the capabilities of their aircraft.”

The two robots can be over half a mile (1 kilometer) or more apart, and still be able to communicate with each other.

Ingenuity will wrap up flight operations no later than the end of August, which will allow the rover team to conclude their science activities and prepare for a communications blackout between Mars and Earth in mid-October when the two planets are on opposite sides of the sun.