Mars Helicopter Completes First One-Way Flight

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NASA’s Mars helicopter has started a new phase of its mission. Late last week, Ingenuity lifted off from Wright Brothers Field, but unlike all its previous flights, this fifth one didn’t end in the same place. This first one-way flight ended in another landing zone 423 feet (129 meters) to the south. This comes as NASA has extended Ingenuity’s mission into the summer, ensuring we’ll see more record-setting flights. 

The fifth Ingenuity flight began at 3:26 PM EDT (12:33 PM local Mars time) Friday and lasted a total of 108 seconds. Unlike a recent failed test, the drone completed its startup sequence before the system timed out. NASA has been hesitant to transmit updated software to fix this bug, as the robot correctly transitions to flight mode about 85 percent of the time. After lifting off, the helicopter rose to 423 feet (129 meters), its highest altitude yet. 

NASA chose the new base of operations based on data gathered during the drone’s fourth flight, making this the first aerial scout operation on another planet. The team created digital elevation maps indicating that the new landing zone was completely flat with no major obstructions. This is a vital part of the helicopter’s operation as it cannot be controlled in real-time from Earth. We have to trust that the onboard hazard avoidance programming can handle whatever comes its way. 

Now that it’s safely on the surface, Ingenuity just has to wait for the Perseverance rover to catch up. The helicopter is, by necessity, built to be lightweight. Perseverance carries the communication equipment that sends data back to Earth, and the flying drone talks to the rover over the Zigbee wireless protocol. Ingenuity also runs on off-the-shelf hardware such as the Snapdragon 801 ARM chip that isn’t hardened for the harsh environment of Mars. Still, it’s holding up amazingly well so far. 

Initially, Ingenuity was scheduled to stop flying late last month so the rover could start its science operations elsewhere, but Ingenuity’s success convinced mission managers to keep it going. Luckily, the area around Wright Brothers Field has proven scientifically interesting for the rover team. The goal is to squeeze in a few more flights over the next several months without slowing the rover’s operations. As part of this “operations demonstration,” NASA will be able to assess how flying assets like Ingenuity can support missions in the future.

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