NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is entering a new operational test phase

Posted by Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Now that NASA’s tiny Mars robotic helicopter Ingenuity has exceeded all expectations in its first four test flights, the first time an aircraft has made it over the surface of another planet, it’s ready for graduation.

The U.S. space agency announced on Friday that Ingenuity is moving from a pure proof-of-concept mode for technology demonstrations to a more ambitious mission examining how aerial scouting and other functions of future scientific exploration of the red planet will be conducted could benefit.

Ingenuity’s 30-day project expansion project was explained during a briefing from its mission control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NYSE 🙂 (JPL) near Los Angeles, where the twin-rotor aircraft was designed and built.

The new “operational demonstration” phase of the 4-pound (1.8 kg) solar-powered helicopter began with its fourth take-off on a nearly two-minute flight on Friday morning.

Data returned from Ingenuity later that day showed it could travel 266 meters (872 feet) there and back – roughly the length of three American football fields – at a speed of 3.5 meters per second ( nearly 8 miles per hour).

The helicopter flew at an altitude of about 5 meters, which was considered ideal for airborne ground surveillance and was equivalent to the altitude of its second and third flights.

The final excursion surpassed the speed and distance records set on Sunday with Flight No. 3, which went further and faster than the test flights conducted on Earth.

For comparison: Ingenuity’s first 39-second flight on Mars on April 19 rose just 3 meters, hovered briefly in place, and then descended straight away to land.

While NASA was only modest about the readings, it compared the achievement to the Wright Brothers’ historic first controlled flight in their motor-powered aircraft near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

For NASA, the challenge was to propel an aircraft in the ultra-thin air of Mars, whose atmosphere is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, making it particularly difficult to generate aerodynamic lift. To compensate for this, engineers have equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger and rotate much faster than would be required on Earth.

The miniature helicopter made a trip to Mars strapped to the belly of NASA’s science rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that landed in a giant basin called the Jezero Crater on February 18, after a nearly seven-month journey through space.

Aside from a computer software glitch that delayed Ingenuity flights twice, the rotorcraft performed flawlessly on its first three flights on Mars and met all of its technical goals, said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL.

“And now it’s like Ingenuity is graduating from a tech demo phase to a new ops demo phase,” she said.

On his most recent outing, Ingenuity took 60 black and white images and several color photos of the surface of Mars as it whizzed across the planet’s red and orange landscape.

The images are processed into three-dimensional digital height maps in order to select a suitable new take-off and landing zone for later flights.

Similar tracking operations could also be used to help mission managers conduct low-altitude scientific observations of locations that cannot easily be reached by a rover and to find preferred rover routes to various surface targets.

The next flight, # 5, will send Ingenuity on a one-way trip to a new “airfield” in two or three weeks as engineers continue to push the helicopter beyond its design limits, Aung said. However, mission managers are unlikely to push the plane as hard as they would otherwise without the new “Ops Demo” mission, she told reporters.

In the meantime, JPL will continue to prepare Perseverance for its main task, the search for traces of fossilized microorganisms in the Jezero crater. Scientists expect to start collecting Martian rock samples there in July.

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