NASA is so pleased with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter's performance that it will devise a new “operations demonstration phase” in which the craft will be tasked with “exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.”
The decision to define a new mission came ahead of Ingenuity’s delayed fourth flight, which eventually overcame software glitches to perform its longest-ever flight.
On this trip the ‘copter rose to five meters, flew 133 meters south and then returned to its take-off position. The craft remained aloft for 117 seconds.
NASA has published some performance data about the helicopter’s exploits, reporting that it has handled winds of up to eight meters per second, calculated the local Martian atmosphere has 1.3 percent the density of Earth’s (at sea level), and that when the craft hovers its rotor power is around 210w.
Watch this: Ingenuity – Earth's first aircraft to fly on another planet – take off on MarsREAD MORE
Before Ingenuity gets its new mission, it has a fifth flight to complete. This time it’s expected to revisit the turnaround point used on flight four, and land there to await further instructions.
NASA hasn’t detailed what Ingenuity will be asked to do beyond flight five, other than to say it’s all about planning to help aerial observation efforts on future missions and will involve “more precision manoeuvring, greater use of its aerial-observation capabilities, and more risk overall.”
Some of those flights may be in the service of the Perseverance rover.
“Ingenuity may execute flights that land near the rover’s current location or its next anticipated parking spot,” NASA says. “The helicopter can use these opportunities to perform aerial observations of rover science targets, potential rover routes, and inaccessible features while also capturing stereo images for digital elevation maps.”
Perseverance drove ten meters on April 26 and is headed towards rocky outcrops thought to be worthy of drilling. A trip to Jezero crater’s fossil river delta is also on the list of places to visit.
Also in space over the weekend, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returned safely to Earth with four astronauts aboard. Nasty weather saw the capsule splash down off Florida at night, the first time a US mission has landed in the dark since 1968. The mission was also the first outing in NASA’s commercial crew-carrying program and was the longest US crewed space mission ever. ®