Ingenuity Gets a New Assignment

Ingenuity Gets a New Assignment

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter got a new assignment today. Designed as a technology demonstrator simply to prove it could fly on Mars, NASA is so delighted with the results that now Ingenuity will move into an operational role supporting the Perseverance rover as it begins its scientific exploration of the Red Planet.

Ingenuity completed its fourth flight today. NASA was planning a total of five over a 30-day period to test the tiny helicopter’s capabilities. The flights have gone so well that all the test objectives were achieved in just three. Today’s flight, and the fifth, expected next week, are basically bonuses allowing project engineers to fly faster and further to see what happens.

The 1.8 kilogram (4 pound) helicopter arrived at Mars in the “belly” of the Perseverance rover. As a technology demonstration, it has secondary status to Perseverance’s scientific mission searching for signs of ancient life on Mars and collecting samples that will be retrieved and returned to Earth later in the decade.

NASA set aside just 30 days for Ingenuity’s tests so Perseverance could then get on with its task. Ingenuity needs Perseverance. It communicates only with the rover, which then relays the signals back to Earth. Perseverance’s cameras also film Ingenuity’s flights so it must stay nearby, but not operate any of its mechanisms lest they create interference with signals from Ingenuity.

Ingenuity has its own cameras that take pictures of Mars from an altitude of 5 meters (16 feet), showing the area around the rover.  During the course of these flights, the Perseverance team has been quite impressed with those images and now looks at Ingenuity as a partner in exploring Mars giving it a view it cannot see itself.

NASA released a fun image taken by Ingenuity that caught Perseverance in the shot with a teaser as to whether anyone could spot the rover. (Hint: look for the tire tracks in the upper left hand corner.)


MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Project Manager, JPL, at April 30, 2021 briefing. Screengrab.

Mimi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, said at a press conference this morning that it is like Ingenuity is “graduating from the tech demo phase to now the new ops demo phase where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give.”

That includes scouting ahead for Perseverance.

On today’s flight, Ingenuity’s task was to do just that, scout for a new “airfield” where it will land on its fifth mission and wait for Perseverance.

For the first four flights, Ingenuity flew out and back, extending its range each time but always coming back to roughly the same spot in an area NASA dubs Wright Brothers Field. NASA likens Ingenuity, which is making the first powered flights on another world, to the Wright Brothers, who conducted the first powered flight on Earth in 1903. A piece of the fabric from the Wright Flyer is on Ingenuity.

The fifth flight will be a one-way mission to the new airfield. When Perseverance catches up,  hopefully Ingenuity will fly again. And again.

Ingenuity’s operational demonstration phase is for just another 30 days, a total of 60, at least for now.  Ingenuity was not designed to last more than 30 days and engineers are not certain how many freeze/thaw cycles its components can endure, but the new plan announced today is for Ingenuity to fly at least two more times over the next month.

The point is to demonstrate how future rovers could be paired with aerial devices to expand exploration.  When such a chance will present itself is another question. NASA’s next mission to Mars, jointly with the European Space Agency, is to pick up the samples Perseverance is collecting and return them to Earth.

Perseverance deputy program manager Jennifer Trosper said today they hope to collect the first sample in July.

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze made clear today there is no room for a helicopter on that mission, which is already “very, very ambitious” and needs to “stay very focused on its mission to retrieve those samples.”

NASA does have another mission in the works to fly on another planetary body, though, just not Mars.  Dragonfly, a dual-quadcopter, will fly over the dunes and methane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan in 2034.

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