NASA confirmed yesterday that the Ingenuity helicopter completed its 15th flight on Mars, a 128.8-second jaunt that begins the chopper’s trip back to its original airfield. On the flight just before this latest one, Ingenuity flew at 2,700 rpm, a faster spin rate that gives NASA scientists confidence that the rotorcraft will be able to stay skyborne during colder Martian weather, when the air on the planet gets even thinner.
The original site is Octavia E. Butler landing site at Wright Brothers Field, where Ingenuity got its wings (er, rotors) on the Red Planet. The first flight was a 10-foot-high, 40-second hover in April, and since then, the helicopter has gone beyond all of NASA’s (conservative) expectations for the $85 million experiment. Flying hundreds of feet per flight is now routine, and the helicopter has stayed in the air for nearly three minutes at a time.
Ingenuity’s 15th flight was planned to be a 1,332-foot, 130-second flight, with the rover traveling at just over 11 miles per hour at 40 feet above the planet’s surface, according to Teddy Tzanetos, a team lead for Ingenuity who wrote a blog post about the upcoming flights. Detailed flight data has yet to be made public, but we know from NASA’s confirmation that it was slightly shorter than planned. It’ll take several more flights to reach the original airfield, Tzanetos writes.
All of this has happened in a small area on the west of Jezero Crater, where scientists believe an ancient lake once existed, with a river delta feeding the lake from the west. The dried-up delta is a prime location to search for fossilized microbial biosignatures, or evidence of ancient Martian life.
The helicopter, having proven it can capably fly on Mars, has become a scout for the Perseverance rover, meaning that it flits about the main science mission, taking images of the local landscape and identifying points of scientific interest. The ultimate goal of Perseverance is to collect promising rock samples from the western edge of Jezero; Ingenuity’s job now is to view regions the rover can’t access, looking for safe routes and giving scientists a bird’s-eye view of the area.