The Ingenuity helicopter has stuck the landing of its most difficult flight yet, the craft’s ninth. The helicopter took a high-speed sojourn over rough terrain.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the flight’s success this morning in a tweet. The helicopter’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, and its chief engineer, Bob Balaram, had earlier described their intentions for the flight in a NASA blog post. In their post, they indicated that Ingenuity’s ninth flight would break its current groundspeed, distance, and airtime records. Though we’ve yet to get full details on this latest flight, Grip and Balaram said the craft would be instructed to fly over 2,050 feet (625 meters) at 16 feet (5 meters) per second and that the entire flight would last nearly three minutes.
Since the Perseverance rover began its scientific explorations last month, Ingenuity has kept dutifully close to its terrestrial counterpart. Not this time. Perseverance is perched at the eastern edge of a rugged stretch of Mars called Séítah, or “amidst the sand” in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. The Séítah is characterized by undulating sands that NASA scientists believe would be tough for a wheeled vehicle to traverse. That made the region ideal for this episode in Ingenuity’s growth, as it forced the helicopter to venture well beyond the rover that carried it the 183 million miles from Earth. Flying across the dunes showed off the utility of aerial vehicles on Mars and beyond, a point already proven emphatically in the craft’s first five flights. The ninth flight also challenged Ingenuity’s navigation algorithm, which was really designed to read the flatter terrain of the Red Planet, not the undulating sands of the Séítah.
Some black-and-white imagery from the helicopter was released from the ninth flight, but still to come are new color images of the Séítah’s rocks and ripples, over which Ingenuity passed. The craft likely did not maintain a constant speed throughout its flight; because of uncertainty about the way Ingenuity’s navigation system would interpret Séítah’s fluctuating topography, the team instructed the craft to fly more slowly over the rougher parts of the region.
Grip and Balaram said in their blog that this ninth flight was the most nerve-wracking since the helicopter’s maiden voyage on the Red Planet. Though they’ve yet to publish all the data from the flight, one thing is certain: The flight was a success, and we’ve yet to hit the limits of this record-breaking rotorcraft.