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NASA Mars helicopter’s next flight carries ‘substantial risk’

Fresh from snapping an image of the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is about to take its 12th flight over the Red Planet in a mission that the space agency says carries “substantial risk.”

The plucky helicopter has already exceeded expectations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which is overseeing the current Mars mission involving Ingenuity and Perseverance.

Four months after becoming the first aircraft to achieve powered flight on another planet, the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter has taken 10 more flights of increasing complexity.

Its next flight, which is set to take place this week, will see Ingenuity explore what NASA describes as the “geologically intriguing” South Séítah region of Jezero Crater, indicated by the top yellow ellipse in the image below.

A map showing the movements of Ingenuity and Perseverance.
This image depicts the ground tracks of NASA’s Perseverance rover (white) and flight path of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter (green) since arriving on the Red Planet in February 2021. The upper yellow ellipse shows the “South Séítah” region, which Ingenuity is scheduled to fly over during its 12th sortie. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The plan is to use the flight to gather data for the Perseverance team so it can decide whether the area is interesting enough for its rover to take a closer look and perhaps find signs of ancient life on the planet — one of the key objectives of the current mission.

Ingenuity’s 12th flight

If the flight goes according to plan, Ingenuity will climb to an altitude of 10 meters before flying 235 meters east-northeast toward Séítah.

There, the aircraft will capture two photos from 5 meters apart to create a 3D image for the Perseverance team to examine. It will also take 10 additional color images during the flight.

Finally, Ingenuity will trace its route back to its starting point before delivering its data to the team so it can decide which boulders, rocky outcrops, and other geologic features in South Séítah may be worth closer examination.

NASA is describing the upcoming flight as “ambitious,” adding that because the helicopter is flying over terrain that’s much more uneven compared to earlier flights, the mission carries “substantial risk.”

The space agency explains: “Ingenuity’s navigation system — which was originally intended to support a short technology demonstration — works on the assumption that it is flying across flat (or nearly flat) terrain. Deviations from this assumption can introduce errors that can lead both to temporary excursions in roll and pitch (tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern), as well as long-term errors in the helicopter’s knowledge of its position.”

A big part of Ingenuity’s test flight program sought to see if its technology could be used in a more advanced flying machine to assist rovers on the ground. But Ingenuity’s flights have gone so well that the team has found itself in the unexpected position of being able to assist the Perseverance team by supplying it with high-quality images of areas of interest.

Let’s just hope its next mission doesn’t prove too much for Ingenuity and that the aircraft has plenty more flights left in it over the coming months.

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Trevor Mogg
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