The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Mars drone helicopter, Ingenuity, made a successful fifth flight on Friday. This was another landmark sortie by the little aircraft, which lasted 108 seconds and which set a new altitude record of 10 m.
But the key importance of this flight was that it was a one-way affair. Instead of returning to the landing site that it has hitherto used, Ingenuity touched down at a new location, 129 m to the south of its original ‘base’, named Wright Brothers Field. During the flight it captured high-resolution colour images of the area around its new landing site.
“The fifth flight of the Mars helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” affirmed Nasa associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Bob Pearce. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”
The new landing site had been surveyed by Ingenuity on its fourth flight. This was the first aerial survey ever carried out on another planet. The images collected by the helicopter on that flight were used to create digital elevation maps of the site. These showed the terrain there to be almost flat and with hardly any obstructions.
Nasa’s latest (and fifth) Mars rover, Perseverance, which carried Ingenuity to the Red Planet and acts as its base station for communications to and from Earth, is also moving south, to a site where it will start its science and sample collecting operations. For the near future, Perseverance’s programme does not involve long drives that would leave the little helicopter behind. Consequently, the drone will be able to continue with its new operational demonstration mission.
“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations,” explained Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory Ingenuity Mars Helicopter chief engineer Bob Balaram. “We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.”