On the late-night of July 4, NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity pulled off its most challenging flight on the red planet. The rotorcraft flew very far from the Mars rover at a speed of 5 metres per second for 166.4 seconds. Ahead of the flight, NASA described it as “the most nerve-wracking flight since Flight 1.” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories took to Twitter to announce the success of the toughest flight taken by Ingenuity. A tweet posted by JPL also featured a photograph taken by the Mars helicopter of its own shadow while flying.
NASA scientists were worried before the flight because it was a high-risk, high-reward attempt. Successfully finishing, it would present a powerful demonstration of Mars exploration using aerial vehicles. Aerial exploration of Mars will significantly make observations on the red planet easy for scientists. Flying probes will be able to efficiently access tough terrains and closely observe them for the needed data.
One of the reasons scientists considered the flight the most challenging is the fact that the terrain in which the helicopter flew in is unfriendly. Unlike plain surfaces, where the rotorcraft took its first flight, the Séítah region is full of sandy ripples and abrupt slopes. These abrupt changes in slopes could misguide the helicopter as the helicopter’s onboard interpretation of images from the navigation camera assumes flat surfaces.
However, there is no risk of collision with slopes because “Ingenuity flies sufficiently high above the terrain that this will not be a problem” said Håvard Grip, Chief Pilot, and Bob Balaram, Chief Engineer of the Mars helicopter, in a NASA statement. The sandy ripples of the region, however, are tough for the Mars rover. In this case, the helicopter flew far away from the rover taking a shortcut.
The Mars helicopter is a part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission and accompanies the mars rover Perseverance. Ingenuity flew on the Martian surface for the first time on April 19. With its first powered controlled flight, humanity made a big leap by achieving controlled flight under the gravity of another planet.