NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter has now successfully completed its fourth flight test on Mars, after a false start that occurred last Thursday, and again performed exactly as planned.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California, data received back from Ingenuity showed it successfully took off as planned on Friday, with the rotorcraft again climbing to five metres high.
On this test, Ingenuity flew south approximately 133 metres, and then back to its original take-off position, for a total return trip of 266 metres.
In total, the Mars Helicopter was in the air for 117 seconds, making the fourth test the longest of Ingenuity’s ventures to date.
According to NASA’s JPL, Ingenuity was able to capture a slew of colour images during this fourth flight, as well as black-and-white photos captured by its navigation camera underneath the aircraft.
“During this flight, we saved even more images than we did on our previous flights: about 60 total during the last 50 meters before the helicopter returned to its landing site,” NASA revealed.
According to JPL, capturing such images provides a “technical challenge” for Ingenuity, but provides a ‘never-before-seen’ aerial perspective of the Red Planet.
“We’ll use these images to study the surface features of the terrain. Some of our black-and-white images were taken as stereo pairs, allowing us to test our ability to make 3D imagery of the surface and study the elevation of different sites below us,” NASA said.
“Adding this dimension to future missions could offer a broad range of scouting possibilities across regions that rovers can’t roam, close-ups that orbiters can’t provide, or ways to extend the reach of future human explorers.”
According to NASA, Ingenuity’s fifth test flight will take it on a one-way mission, landing at a new site away from Wright Brothers Field, and will separate the rotorcraft from its companion – the Perseverance Mars rover.
“If Ingenuity remains healthy after those flights, the next phase can begin,” NASA said.
The aircraft’s sixth flight will mark a new phase of space exploration, and a new mission for Ingenuity, the space agency has said.
“Having proven that powered, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet, the Ingenuity experiment will soon embark on a new operations demonstration phase, exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.”
NASA added: “The decision to add an operations demonstration is a result of the Perseverance rover being ahead of schedule with the thorough checkout of all vehicle systems since its Feb 18 landing, and its science team choosing a nearby patch of crater bed for its first detailed explorations.
“With the Mars Helicopter’s energy, telecommunications, and in-flight navigation systems performing beyond expectation, an opportunity arose to allow the helicopter to continue exploring its capabilities with an operations demonstration, without significantly impacting rover scheduling.”
According to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Ingenuity program to date has been a “resounding success”.
“Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritising and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals,” he said.
It comes after news on Thursday last week that Ingenuity was unable to take off for its fourth test flight due to technical difficulties.
NASA received data on Thursday morning that showed the rotorcraft did not execute its planned fourth flight as scheduled.
The helicopter reportedly did not properly transition into ‘flight mode’, which is required in order for it to take off.
However, NASA’s JPL assured that the helicopter remains in good condition.
NASA was previously aware of a technical glitch that results in a 15 per cent chance per take-off that Ingenuity would not transition into flight mode.