- NASA plans to push its Ingenuity Mars helicopter “to the limit” – as far and fast as it will go.
- During the next three flights, engineers hope to get as much data as possible for future drones.
- Mission controllers don’t expect the helicopter to survive.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made spaceflight history on Monday when it lifted off Mars and rose 3.05m above the planet’s surface. Never before had a spacecraft conducted a controlled, powered flight on another planet.
Then on Thursday, Ingenuity flew even higher -16 feet – and moved sideways for the first time.
Ingenuity has proven that aerial exploration is possible on other planets, but its mission is far from over. Now NASA wants to gain as much flight data as possible to inform future space-helicopter efforts.
In up to three more flights over the next two weeks, Ingenuity’s controllers plan to push the helicopter as far and fast as it will go. In the process, they expect Ingenuity will crash.
“We really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information back from that,” MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said in a Monday press briefing.
“That information is extremely important,” she added. “This is a pathfinder. This is about, you know, finding if there any ‘unknown unknowns’ that we can’t model. And we really want to know what the limits are. So we will be pushing the limits, very deliberately.”
‘Going really far and really fast’
During Ingenuity’s first flight, the 2kg space drone powered up its rotors, spinning them five times faster than a helicopter on Earth. This gave it enough lift in the thin Martian atmosphere to hover, pivot toward the onlooking Perseverance rover, and gently lower itself to the ground.
During the second flight, Ingenuity tilted itself 5 degrees – enough for the rotors’ thrust to push it sideways for about 2.13m before stopping to hover.
For its next flight, the helicopter will fly much farther and faster. It’s set to venture about 50.29m out and back at a speed of 1.98m per second.
“I care about going really far and really fast,” Aung said. “As fast as we can go.”
The fifth and final venture could take Ingenuity up to 16 feet high and laterally across 298.70m of Martian ground, according to NASA’s website. Aung, however, said she would “love” to push it over 609.60m.
By the fifth flight, the helicopter “would be unlikely to land safely, because we’ll start going into un-surveyed areas,” Aung said in a preflight briefing on April 9.
“If we do have a bad landing, that will be the end of mission,” she added. “The lifetime will be determined by how well it lands, pretty much.”
A looming deadline for the next three flights
Based on how the third flight goes, NASA’s Ingenuity team will decide how far to push the helicopter for its final two excursions.
Aung didn’t specify how fast she would want the helicopter to fly in later escapades. Speeding up will challenge the chopper’s mechanics as well as its navigation system.
“We navigate by taking images of the ground below. And as we’re traveling faster over the ground, the features in those images disappear from you faster,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, said in the post-flight briefing.
The NASA engineers are pushing themselves over the next two weeks, too. Preparations and a delay caused by a software issue consumed the first two weeks of their 30-day window to conduct up to five flights. Now, less than two weeks remain before Perseverance has to continue on its main alien-fossil-hunting mission.
“I believe we have enough time to squeeze the next four flights in the next few weeks left,” Aung said on Monday. “So that’s the plan.”
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on April 20, 2021.
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