NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter’s Next Mission? Mapping the Red Planet From Above

After successful test flights, NASA is expanding Ingenuity’s mission to further explore its abilities as an aerial scout

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s shadow
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s shadow seen on the surface of Mars and captured by its own down-facing camera during its second test flight on April 22. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Last week, NASA announced it would expand the mission of Ingenuity, its four-pound Mars helicopter, by an additional 30 days after the rotorcraft completed its fourth successful test flight in the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere.

Perseverance Rover's Mastcam-Z Captures Ingenuity's Third Flight

Having proven that powered, controlled flight is possible on Mars, Ingenuity’s expanded mission moves into what NASA calls an operations demonstration phase, reports Kenneth Chang for the New York Times. In contrast to the first phase of the tiny flying robot’s mission on Mars, which was aimed solely at demonstrating that it could fly in an atmosphere 100-times thinner than Earth’s, the operations demonstration phase will focus on showing what Ingenuity can do as an aerial scout.

“The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritizing and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”

In practice, this means that Ingenuity’s next round of test flights will be aimed at providing useful aerial imagery to the Perseverance Rover as it investigates rocks and soil found to search for possible traces of extinct life on Mars. The helicopter will fly out ahead of the rover to scout geological features and take a closer look at terrain that is too rugged for Perseverance, reports Lisa Grossman for Science News. These flights will also provide fodder for the creation of digital topographical maps of the Martian surface that could provide future missions with valuable information.

But, all these new goals are contingent on Ingenuity’s ability to stay alive on the harsh surface of Mars. The aircraft was designed with a 30-day lifespan to match the length of its original mission, and beyond that threshold it’s no longer a given that the helicopter will wake up again after each freezing Martian night.

“We don’t know how many freeze and thaw cycles it can go through before something breaks,” said Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram in a news briefing last week.

The accumulating wear and tear on the helicopter and its new, more technically demanding upcoming test flights means taking on more risk.

"We will now be flying over unsurveyed terrains and transfer to airfields that are not well characterised so there's a higher probability of a bad landing," explained Ingenuity’s project manager MiMi Aung in the briefing. "We will be celebrating each day that ingenuity survives and operates beyond the original window."

These flights will occur over the next few months, reports Elena Moore for NPR, with the final test wrapping up by August.

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