NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has survived its riskiest maneuver yet somehow landing in a new spot on Mars.
Since April 19, Ingenuity has completed four increasingly daring flights. But its fifth aerial adventure marked a new milestone. Instead of turning and retracing its path back to its liftoff spot, Ingenuity instead soared to a record height, then touched down in a new patch of red dust. Its successful migration marks the beginning of a new mission for the helicopter, in a new location.
From now on, Ingenuity isn’t just a technology demonstration. Rather, it has moved on to start testing space-helicopter operations for NASA — activities like scouting and mapping terrain, studying objects on the Martian surface, and flying to areas a rover can’t reach.
“The ability to fly the helicopter out into terrain that the rover cannot possibly traverse and bring back scientific data — this is extremely important for future missions that could combine a rover with a reconnaissance helicopter,” Ken Farley, a project scientist with NASA’s Perseverance rover, said in a briefing last week.
NASA hasn’t yet released details from Friday’s flight. But if it went according to plan, Ingenuity should have spun its rotor blades to lift itself 16 feet above the ground at 3:26 p.m. ET. Then it was expected to tilt slightly to push itself 423 feet south, buzzing past rocks, sand ripples, and small craters. This would all be familiar territory now, since Ingenuity mapped this terrain as it flew past last week.
This time, however, Ingenuity didn’t turn back.
At the end of its flight path, it should have paused then risen 33 feet in the air — an altitude that NASA engineers previously thought impossible for the little drone. After that, Ingenuity was programmed to gently lower itself to land in an entirely new area of Mars’ Jezero Crater.
This was the rotorcraft’s first one-way flight.