Mars Helicopter Ingenuity Prepares for Fastest Flight Yet

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Left Mastcam-Z Camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This image was acquired on Jun. 15, 2021 (Sol 114). NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The plucky little Mars helicopter Ingenuity has been flying faster and further over the Martian surface in its successive flights; most recently traveling 160 meters on its eighth flight. But now the helicopter team has something even more challenging planned, as the helicopter prepares to venture out far away from its rover companion.

Ingenuity is preparing for flight nine, scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday July 4, which will involve leaving the rover to travel across challenging terrain at a high speed. The rover is currently at a location called “Séítah,” which has rippling sand formations which would make it difficult to drive over. So the helicopter will attempt to go up and over this obstacle, snapping photos of the terrain as it goes.

Part of the long-term plan for aerial vehicles on Mars is to have them explore areas which would be difficult or impossible to reach by rover, and to have them move quickly over large areas to scout out the region. This would allow rovers to head to the most scientifically interesting areas which are easily accessible from the ground, while aerial vehicles can explore the more distant or difficult regions.

That’s why Ingenuity is getting ready to fly faster and farther than ever before, with the aim to skip over the Séítah sand formation by flying 625 meters (2,051 feet ) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second, with a total flight time of 167 seconds. This will be a particularly difficult flight for the helicopter, due to the way its autonomous navigation works. It uses its camera to take high-resolution images of the ground below, then uses these images to adjust its movements to stay in the air. But because of the uneven ground it will be flying over, it’s possible that the navigation system could have problems reading the ground level.

This makes the planned flight a risky one, but Ingenuity’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, and chief engineer, Bob Balaram, write that they think the helicopter is up for the challenge: “Why are we willing to take that risk? First, we believe Ingenuity is ready for the challenge, based on the resilience and robustness demonstrated in our flights so far. Second, this high-risk, high-reward attempt fits perfectly within the goals of our current operational demonstration phase.

“A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle (and only an aerial vehicle) can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration — traveling quickly across otherwise untraversable terrain while scouting for interesting science targets.”

We’ll keep you updated on how the helicopter fares on its most challenging flight yet.

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