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NASA’s Mars helicopter will attempt a perilous landing in unknown territory during its first ‘bonus’ flight this week

A month ago, NASA was preparing to sacrifice its Mars helicopter in the name of science.

Ingenuity was designed to soar five times over the Martian surface as a technology demonstration. With each flight, NASA engineers were pushing the 4-pound rotorcraft as far and fast as it would go, so they anticipated that it would eventually crash.

But time and again, Ingenuity wasn’t felled — not by the strong Martian winds, clouds of copper dust, or other challenges to its mechanics and navigation system. So by the end of April, NASA announced that it would extend the helicopter’s life on Mars.

Ingenuity has now embarked on a new, secondary mission to scout out Martian terrain and test operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. That includes exploring rough areas that rovers can’t access, observing interesting features of Mars from the air, and snapping photos for elevation maps.

Ingenuity is scheduled to complete its first “bonus” flight — the helicopter’s sixth flight in total — within the next few days. The excursion will require more precise maneuvering and aerial observations than any of Ingenuity’s previous flights, making it the drone’s riskiest voyage yet.

During its first four flights, Ingenuity returned to the same landing spot, which NASA dubbed Wright Brothers Field. But it’s now making one-way trips to different areas.

Ingenuity’s fifth flight took it to a new spot in Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago. The helicopter had scouted out the location during a previous flight.

This week’s flight will be the first time Ingenuity touches down at an area that it didn’t previously survey. 

NASA’s only information about that new landing spot, called “Field C,” comes from images collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These suggest the area is relatively flat and boulder-free, making it a safe place to land.

The plan is for Ingenuity to spend 140 seconds above the Martian surface — the longest it has ever been airborne — moving at a speed of 9 miles per hour. Ingenuity should also soar 33 feet in the air, an altitude it reached during its fifth flight, which NASA engineers previously thought impossible for the little drone. 

From there, it’s programmed to head southwest for about 492 feet then move about 50 to 66 feet south. Along the way, Ingenuity should capture images of bright Martian outcrops and sand ripples. After that, the chopper is set to fly about 164 feet northeast before touching down at Field C.

ingenuity third flight from rover

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


‘Ingenuity is not going to land gently’

At this point, every one of Ingenuity’s landings is challenging.

“Note that Ingenuity is not going to land gently — it will attempt to fly in winds as high as 22 mph,” Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, and Jeremy Tyler, an aeromechanical engineer at AeroVironment, wrote in a coauthored post for NASA.

ingenuity second flight mars helicopter

The Perseverance rover captured a photo of Ingenuity in mid-air during its second flight on April 22, 2021.


NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS



“Our strategy for landing in windy conditions is to come down with authority, placing Ingenuity’s feet firmly on the ground so that it won’t drift across the surface of Mars and snag a foot on a rock,” they said. 

The helicopter’s suspension system is designed to cushion its touchdown on the Martian surface. But it’s still possible that the rotorcraft could tip over and land on its side, which would damage the blades, effectively ending Ingenuity’s mission.

“We hope we will be flying over unsurveyed terrains and, over time, continuing to transfer to airfields that are not well characterized. So there is a higher probability of bad landing,” MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager, said in a recent briefing.

Even before Ingenuity’s new mission, Aung repeatedly said that a bad landing could end the chopper’s flights. So far, however, the helicopter continues to exceed expectations.

Ingenuity’s fate is tied to the Perseverance rover

ingenuity mars



NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


NASA extended Ingenuity’s mission by 30 days on April 30, so the mission isn’t guaranteed to continue next month. But the drone could keep flying longer, as long as it stays alive and doesn’t interfere with the science work of the Perseverance rover, which carried Ingenuity to Mars.

“We’re in a kind of see-how-it-goes phase,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said last month.

Perseverance has begun its main mission on the red planet: hunting for fossils of ancient alien microbes.

For now, that work is taking place near the helicopter, since Ingenuity must communicate with NASA through the rover.

NASA’s initial plan called for Perseverance to travel farther from its landing spot in the Jezero Crater than it has by now. But then the rover photographed some promising rocks that convinced NASA scientists to further investigate the immediate region.

“These rocks are likely to be mudstones, very fine grained, once mud on the bottom of the lake,” Perseverance scientist Ken Farley said in a briefing last month. “These are very important for our investigation, because this is the kind of environment that we expect to be the most habitable by organisms that might have existed on Mars billions of years ago.”

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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