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One Day, Seeing a Helicopter Fly on Mars May Be Commonplace. That Day Is Not Today


Seven months after its first epic flight on the red planet, NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is still going strong, exceeding the expectations of the original mission beyond all belief, much to everyone’s joy and excitement. And yet, we still can’t get enough of the mind-boggling footage of its travels.

 

Only five flights were planned for the little robot in the thin atmosphere of Mars, and it’s already taken to the air at least 15 times.

By now, Ingenuity is practically a flight pro, and it’s still just as impressive watching the helicopter take to the air, performing complex maneuvers on a world so different from Earth. NASA has just released footage of one of the most challenging flights yet – lucky number 13, which took place on 4 September 2021.

Mars rover Perseverance, Ingenuity’s partner in crime, captured the entire duration of the flight with its Mastcam-Z, Perseverance’s binocular vision camera system. This not only helps scientists here on Earth to study the flight, it puts Percy’s instrumentation through its paces too.

“The value of Mastcam-Z really shines through with these video clips,” said engineer Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Even at 300 meters [328 yards] away, we get a magnificent closeup of takeoff and landing through Mastcam-Z’s ‘right eye.’ And while the helicopter is little more than a speck in the wide view taken through the ‘left eye,’ it gives viewers a good feel for the size of the environment that Ingenuity is exploring.”

 

The flight took place in the Séítah region of Jezero crater, where the two robotic probes explored the terrain together, collecting data so that scientists here on Earth can study the mineral composition of the region.

The purpose of the flight was to take images of a rocky outcrop from multiple angles, from a maximum altitude of 8 meters. These images were taken at the request of the Perseverance science team, to complement 10 images taken during the helicopter’s 12th flight.

After takeoff, which generated a puff of dust, Ingenuity climbed to its maximum altitude before turning on the spot and tilting to one side for the horizontal flight to its vantage point, to the right of Perseverance’s field of view. A short time later, it heads back towards the left and lands, a few meters from its takeoff point.

“We took off from the crater floor and flew over an elevated ridgeline before dipping into Séítah,” said Ingenuity’s chief pilot Håvard Grip of JPL.

“Since the helicopter’s navigation filter prefers flat terrain, we programmed in a waypoint near the ridgeline, where the helicopter slows down and hovers for a moment. Our flight simulations indicated that this little ‘breather’ would help the helicopter keep track of its heading in spite of the significant terrain variations. It does the same on the way back. It’s awesome to actually get to see this occur, and it reinforces the accuracy of our modeling and our understanding of how to best operate Ingenuity.”

Before the first flight was undertaken, it was unclear whether Ingenuity would fly at all. Atmospheric conditions on Mars are quite different from those on Earth; most significantly, the atmospheric density on Mars is much lower, which means staying aloft is much more difficult.

At the time of Ingenuity’s 13th flight, conditions were growing more challenging, due to seasonal changes lowering the atmospheric pressure even further. Because Ingenuity had not been designed to continue its mission beyond a few months, the helicopter’s engineers have had to find ways to compensate for this drop in density, spinning its rotors even faster to generate lift.

So far, this has been working, but it places additional stress on the helicopter’s hardware. The engineers are continuing to perform tests and monitor Ingenuity closely during flights.

The helicopter was due to perform its 16th flight on November 20, over the weekend. We’ll be waiting eagerly to find out how it went.

 



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