Off-world helicopter flights are almost starting to seem mundane, as Ingenuity has now flown for the fourth time on Mars. This afternoon, NASA’s experimental helicopter pushed its bounds, traveling farther and at nearly double its previous speeds.
Each flight has built on the previous ones, as the craft has attempted to go a little farther, a little higher, a little faster with each go. It’s even taken a sweet image of its partner, the Perseverance rover, an exciting reminder of the main mission that lies ahead, during which the rover will hunt for signs of ancient life.
Originally scheduled for yesterday, flight four didn’t happen then because the helicopter failed to enter flight mode, which, as you may deduce, is a crucial step in order for the machine to actually get off the ground. The flight mode issue is the same glitch that was a concern before Ingenuity’s first flight; about 15% of the time the helicopter attempts flight, Ingenuity’s watchdog timer will expire and the flight will not proceed. Watchdog timers are a common bit of software on machines, to ensure that any given set of sequences are executed according to plan. The flight was rescheduled for today, and NASA reports that it all went according to plan.
For Ingenuity’s fourth flight, the goal was to rise to 16 feet—an altitude it first reached in its second flight and a height chief engineer Bob Balaram described as the helicopter’s “sweet spot”—and take black-and-white images of the ground while flying some 436 feet downrange at 8 miles per hour. The chopper was then to perform a hover, photographing the Red Planet with its color camera, before returning to its starting point. This would double Ingenuity’s total attempted distance and increase its total time airborne from about 80 seconds to nearly two minutes.
In a NASA press conference held today in advance of the flight, Perseverance deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper confirmed that the rover team will attempt to collect audio of flight number four. The team also announced that, should the fifth and final planned flight be successful, Ingenuity will move on to a demonstration phase that will involve more complex maneuvers and aerial scouting of Martian regions beyond the helicopter’s current environs.
Already a success, the Ingenuity side project of the Perseverance mission has emboldened NASA to think even bigger. No doubt, future Mars missions will include craft that can more easily navigate a planet adorned with boulders, cliffs, and a volcano three times the height of Mount Everest.
“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of powered, controlled flight at the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in an agency press release. “Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”
The team behind Ingenuity has been placid about its fate. Because it’s merely a test craft, there are no plans for its long-term operation, and it will likely stop working soon. Whether its end comes due to dead batteries or a dramatic crash remains to be seen, but here’s hoping for the latter.
Before the news of this flight got back to Earth, Bob Balaran, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said the team members “have been kicking around several options regarding what a flight five could look like. But ask me about what they entail after a successful flight four.” Now it’s time to revisit that brainstorm and see what other tricks the little helicopter may have tucked under its blades.