NASA Ingenuity Helicopter’s Fifth Flight on Mars Will Be Different – Here’s Why

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this color image during its fourth flight on April 30, 2021. “Airfield B,” it’s new landing site, can be seen below; it will seek to set down there on its fifth flight attempt. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Around the time of our first flight, we talked a lot about having our “Wright brothers moment” at Mars. And that makes a lot of sense, since those two mechanically-minded bicycle builders executed the first powered, controlled flight on Earth, and we were fortunate enough to do the same 117 years later – on another planet.

But the comparisons shouldn’t stop with a first flight. Ingenuity’s fifth flight is scheduled for Friday, May 7. As always (at least so far), our targeted takeoff time is 12:33 p.m. local Mars time (3:26 p.m. EDT, or 12:26 p.m. PDT), with data coming down at 7:31 p.m. EDT (4:31 p.m. PDT). Ingenuity will take off at Wright Brothers Field – the same spot where the helicopter took off and touched back down on all the other flights – but it will land elsewhere, which is another first for our rotorcraft. Ingenuity will climb to 16 feet (5 meters), then retrace its course from flight four, heading south 423 feet (129 meters).

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took these images on its fourth flight, on April 30, 2021, using its navigation camera. The camera, which tracks surface features below the helicopter, takes images at a rate at which the helicopter’s blades appear frozen in place. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But instead of turning around and heading back, we’ll actually climb to a new height record of 33 feet (10 meters), where we can take some color (as well as black-and-white) images of the area. After a total flight time of about 110 seconds, Ingenuity will land, completing its first one-way trip. When it touches down at its new location, we will embark on a new demonstration phase – one where we exhibit what this new technology can do to assist other missions down the road.

The Wrights did that, too. They didn’t quit after one successful flight with Flyer I, or even the other three flights they did on that historic December day in 1903. They flew higher and farther in an upgraded Flyer II in 1904, and even higher and farther with 1905’s Flyer III. By 1908, the Wrights felt they had conquered the air (at least enough) to begin looking at what kind of practical applications an airplane could be used for. That year they flew the first air passenger (Charles Furnas, their mechanic) and began demonstrating how scouting from an aerial perspective could become a thing.

So in a sense, over the course of three weeks and four flights, the Ingenuity team has gone from the Wright brothers of 1903 to the Wright brothers of 1908, but in weeks rather than years. We’ve been able to do this because the rover, which carries the helicopter’s communications base station, will remain in the general vicinity for many sols (Martian days) and because on the fourth flight, we actually scouted for a landing zone over 100 meters (328 feet) away. The digital elevation maps put together by the Ingenuity team gave us confidence that our new airfield is flat as a pancake – a good thing when you have to land on it.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s fourth flight path is superimposed here atop terrain imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

There is one other significant factor in Ingenuity’s continued operations: Our helicopter is even more robust than we had hoped. The power system that we fretted over for years is providing more than enough energy to keep our heaters going at night and to fly during the day. The off-the-shelf components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing great, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it’s doing just fine or better.

Which leads me back to our fifth flight. We are traveling to a new base because this is the direction Perseverance is going, and if we want to continue to demonstrate what can be done from an aerial perspective, we have to go where the rover goes. The Wrights did the same in 1908 – even traveling all the way to LeMans, France, to demonstrate the capabilities of their aircraft.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter carries a small swatch of muslin material from the lower-left wing of the Wright Brothers Flyer 1. Located on the underside of the helicopter’s solar panel (the dark rectangle), the swatch is attached with dark orange polymide tape to a cable extending from the panel, and then further secured in place with white polyester cord used to bind cables together. A gray dot of epoxy at the intersection of the three wraps of cord prevents the lacing from loosening as the rotor blades (upper pair seen at bottom of image) rotate at up to 2,400 rpm. The swatch of material from the Wright brothers’ first airplane was obtained from the Carillon Historical Park, in Dayton, Ohio — home to the Wright Brothers National Museum. The image was taken in a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California on January 15, 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I think a lot about the Wrights during our flights. I’m sure part of the reason is that I (along with teammate Chris Lefler) had the honor of attaching the small swatch of material from the lower left wing of Flyer I to Ingenuity. But it’s more than that. The Wrights showed what could be accomplished with a combination of teamwork, creativity, and tenacity – and a bit of ingenuity and perseverance.

On flight day, when I look around the room and online at our team, I see a lot of the same sort of vision and tenacity/spirit that made the Wright brothers who they were. Together, we are continuing our Wright brothers moments on Mars.

Written by Josh Ravich, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Mechanical Engineering Lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ingenuity Mars HelicopterJPLMarsNASA
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  • Peter Vermeeren

    Het hele team gefeliciteerd, het is zeer vernieuwend om het zo te programmeren dat de mars ingenutty marshelikoper geheel zelfstandig deze actie uit kan voeren. zodat wij op onze wereld mee kunnen genieten van deze historische beelden.