NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has defied expectations on Mars once again, flying 350 feet south to land in totally new territory.
For the second time, the tissue-box-sized drone flew to a new landing site, hovered above ground that its navigation cameras had never seen before, then gently lowered itself to touchdown. NASA only had information about the new area from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images the red planet from space. The orbiter’s pictures indicated that the spot was flat and should be safe for landing.
The gamble paid off. Now Ingenuity is sitting in a brand new airfield with a total of seven flights under its belt.
“Another successful flight,” NASA announced on Tuesday. The agency did not specify on what day the flight took place, but it was set for no earlier than Sunday.
NASA didn’t originally plan to move the helicopter around so much. It was only designed for five flights, and engineers expected it to crash by the end of that series. But Ingenuity performed so well in its initial, more cautious flights that the agency has sent it on a daring new mission. For as long as it survives, the helicopter is expected to keep flying to new airfields.
That new directive gives Ingenuity a chance to test operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. That includes scouting and mapping, observing interesting features of Mars from the air, and exploring rough terrain that rovers can’t access.
“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.
The helicopter conducted the first of these bonus flights on May 22, when it flew a record 700 feet to a new site. In mid-air, its navigation system suffered a glitch that caused the helicopter to pitch side to side as it flew. But even then, Ingenuity stabilized itself enough to land safely. It wound up within about 16 feet of its target spot, touching down in totally uncharted territory for the first time.
NASA hasn’t said how many more times Ingenuity may fly.
“We’re in a kind of see-how-it-goes phase,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said.
Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover that carried Ingenuity to Mars has started driving south to the region where it will attempt to take its first sample of Martian soil. Its primary mission is to analyze Martian rocks and soil and collect dozens of samples for a future NASA mission to bring back to Earth. In those samples, scientists could find the first evidence of ancient alien microbes — fossils trapped in the bottom of an ancient lake bed.