The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Experiment Is About to Get More Interesting

Ingenuity airborne (right) during its fourth flight on April 30, 2021.
Ingenuity airborne (right) during its fourth flight on April 30, 2021.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

It’s not wrong to want Ingenuity to crash. The Mars helicopter getting into a dramatic accident would mean that the NASA team pushed the craft to its limits—that there’s finally a ceiling on the accomplishments of the astonishingly successful chopper. So far, Ingenuity has completed four of its five scheduled test flights on Mars, and it now has a new mission for the month ahead.

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Assuming a successful fifth flight, Ingenuity will embark on an arguably more experimental phase of aerial scouting and other functions, exploring how else future rotorcraft could carry out human objectives on Mars. The new set of challenges means the nature of the Ingenuity mission has evolved from a simple demonstration that flight is possible on Mars.

“We gauge as we go,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, of Ingenuity’s expected lifespan in a NASA press conference held last week. “Ingenuity was built and tested for 30 days of operation. We do expect some finite life, so it really will be a race between how long these parts surprise us in surviving and, also, in doing these operational scenarios we’ll definitely be pushing the limits in Ingenuity.”

Ingenuity’s first flight, on April 19, 2021.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The extra month of experimentation is good news for the helicopter’s team, which had a 30-day window to complete the initial five flights. It looks set to complete those flights with days to spare, and with the Perseverance rover team being ahead of schedule on their system checks, it’s given the helicopter team some extra time to play around. A status update on Ingenuity’s performance in the air, published late last week by the helicopter’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, revealed that the craft has passed its inaugural test of flying on Mars with, well, flying colors.

According to a NASA release, the sorts of tasks Ingenuity could undertake in the next month are much more ambitious. As Perseverance sets out on its main mission—scouting out signs of fossil life in a dried-up river delta—the helicopter may accompany it, spotting sites of interest from above or eyeballing possible routes for the rover. It can also capture stereo images that will help create elevation maps of the area. The helicopter can be about two-thirds of a mile away from Perseverance and still communicate with it, according to Aung.

Obviously, it would be great if Ingenuity keeps chugging along, defying all predictions about its survival. But at the same time, it has already blown us away with its achievements. All data we get going forward is pretty much bonus.

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“There are lots of ideas about how this might end and what the final flight might be,” said Jennifer Trosper, a deputy project manager on the rover team, during the press conference last week. “As we go through it, our objective is to evaluate every month and see how it’s going, and then determine what the next steps are.”

So no, the NASA team is not hell-bent on killing the ‘copter. But the time for short, conservative flights is over, and we’re excited to see what’s next.

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More: See footage of Ingenuity’s remarkable rise and successful landing

Science writer at Gizmodo.

DISCUSSION

Given NASA’s track record, I’d be more surprised if it “only” did what it was engineered to do.