On July 24, 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully completed its 10th and most daring flight on the red planet — a major milestone for the Ingenuity mission. The helicopter, originally expected to only perform five flights on Mars, continues to assist the Perseverance rover as hoped.
Meanwhile, Perseverance itself recently began full science operations at Jezero Crater. Rover teams are finalizing testing onboard the science platform and beginning the search for signs of life on Mars.
Ingenuity’s operational history
Ingenuity landed on Mars on February 18, 2021 attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover and protected by a debris shield. A little over a month after landing, on March 21, the debris shield was dropped by Perseverance in preparation for deployment of Ingenuity.
Perseverance placed Ingenuity onto the surface of Mars on April 3 at a location designated “Wright Brothers Field.” Ingenuity teams then began a series of tests with the helicopter to ensure it was in good shape to begin flying.
After completing rotor tests and surviving Martian nights, Perseverance drove to Van Zyl Overlook to observe Ingenuity’s first flight. Overcoming a command sequence issue, Ingenuity performed the first powered flight of any aircraft on another planet on April 19, 2021.
Flight 1, a demonstration hop, consisted of a simple vertical takeoff, an ascent to three meters, a stable hover for 30 seconds, a 90-degree turn, and a descent back to the surface. The flight lasted a total of 39.1 seconds and was a complete success.
Ingenuity’s teams began preparing for the second flight, and just three days after the first flight, the helicopter successfully performed its second.
Flight 2 consisted of a vertical takeoff, an ascent to five meters, a hover, a sideways divert of two meters to the east, a 276 degree counterclockwise turn, a divert maneuver two meters to the west, and a descent. The flight lasted 51.9 seconds, and Ingenuity traveled at a speed of 0.5 m/s.
In a continued effort to try and stay within the helicopter’s 30 day test window, Ingenuity teams began preparing for the third flight — the third in less than a week.
Flight 3 was performed on April 25 and consisted of a vertical ascent to five meters, a hover, a northward divert of 50 meters, a hover, a southward divert of 50 meters, a hover, and a descent. The flight lasted 80.3 seconds with Ingenuity traveling at 2 m/s over a total distance of 100 meters.
During the flight, Ingenuity was able to capture an image of Perseverance observing it in the distance. With this flight, JPL announced that Ingenuity had met or surpassed all of the test goals set for the helicopter’s tech demonstration and that it would begin performing more daring flights to push the limits of its design.
Ingenuity’s fourth flight was scheduled for April 29; however, no flight occurred. Upon investigation, Ingenuity teams found that the helicopter did not successfully transition into flight mode. As a result, Flight 4 was rescheduled for April 30.
Flight 4 eventually consisted of a takeoff, an ascent to five meters, a hover, a southward divert of 133 meters, a hover, a northward divert of 133 meters, a hover, and a descent. Ingenuity traveled 266 meters roundtrip at a top speed of 3.5 m/s over 117 seconds.
Up through flight four, the helicopter performed all of its takeoffs and landings at the same location: Wright Brothers Field. However, Flight 5 would see Ingenuity land in a separate location.
On May 7, Ingenuity successfully performed this flight with a 110 second travel time and a maximum velocity of 2 m/s across 129 meters distance while maintaining 10 meters altitude above the local terrain.
This flight also marked the end of Ingenuity’s technology demonstration phase, as the helicopter had not just met but surpassed all of its pre-mission planned objectives.
Flight 6 on May 23 began an operations demonstration phase, with a flight sequence consisting of a takeoff, an ascent to 10 meters, a southwest divert of 150 meters, a southerly translation of 15 meters for color imagery collection, a northeastern divert of 50 meters, a descent, and a landing in a new area known as “Airfield C”.
Flight 6 marked the first time Ingenuity landed in an area it had not previously surveyed from the air.
When Ingenuity lands in previously not surveyed regions, teams rely on HiRISE camera image data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to ensure the location meets the helicopter’s landing and take off specifications.
However, during Flight 6, Ingenuity encountered an in-flight anomaly. The first southwesterly divert was performed as planned, but approximately 54 seconds into flight, the vehicle began rapidly changing velocity and became somewhat unstable as well.
Ingenuity was able to self-correct, stay airborne, and later land just five meters from its intended touchdown area. The anomaly was traced to the helicopter’s camera navigation system marking images with the incorrect timestamps.
Following the in-flight anomaly, Flight 7 occurred on June 8, after a failed attempt on June 6 due to the same reason Flight 4 failed.
Flight 7 consisted of a takeoff, an ascent to 10 meters, a 106 meter divert to the south, a descent, and a landing in a new location, Airfield D. This flight did not use the helicopter’s camera navigation system to avoid the glitch that caused the Flight 6 anomaly.
Two weeks after Flight 7, Ingenuity successfully performed its eighth flight on June 22. The flight, which lasted 78 seconds, consisted of a takeoff from Airfield D, an ascent to 10 meters, a divert of 160 meters to the southeast, a descent, and a landing.
Like Flight 7, Ingenuity’s camera navigation system was not used during flight 8 to avoid the Flight 6 anomaly.
In pursuit of pushing the envelope even more, Flight 9 was set to be Ingenuity’s most daring flight to that time.
The helicopter, which had only traveled 266 meters in a single flight, was set to travel 625 meters southwest across the Séítah area. The flight consisted of a takeoff from Airfield E, ascent to 10 meters, a southwesterly divert of 625 meters in which a maximum velocity of 5 m/s was recorded, a descent, and a landing.
Ingenuity successfully completed the prolonged flight on July 5, and although it landed slightly short of its intended touchdown location, it managed, with this flight, to exceed the total distance the Perseverance rover itself had travel across the Martian terrain since landing.
At the completion of Flight 9, Ingenuity had an odometer reading of just over 1,600 meters, just slightly edging out Perseverance.
Flight 10 sought to introduce more complication into the flight plan, with Ingenuity set to travel to 10 different waypoints to allow its camera to gather images of an outcrop the rover team is looking to investigate.
Flight 10 occurred on July 24 and consisted of a takeoff, an ascent to 12 meters (a new Mars altitude record), a 50 meter divert to the southwest, a sideways translation to the west, a northwesterly divert, a divert to the northeast, a descent, and a landing in a new airfield.
Ingenuity successfully performed the flight, visiting all 10 expected waypoints.
According to Ingenuity’s teams, the helicopter remains in good health and is expected to keep flying until a major anomaly or issue prevents the rotorcraft from doing so.
Perseverance science operations well underway
Following its commissioning on June 1, Perseverance left the Octavia E Butler landing site in Jezero Crater and began the science phase of its mission.
“We are putting the rover’s commissioning phase as well as the landing site in our rearview mirror and hitting the road,” said Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The two locations scientists are looking to study first are the Séítah area and the Crater Floor Fractured Rough area. Séítah, meaning “amidst the sand” in Navajo, is a unique geologic area with various characteristics including dunes, bedrock, ridges, and layered rocks.
The Crater Floor Fractured Rough area is comprised of bedrock and is the crater-filled floor of Jezero Crater. Here, Perseverance is expected to drill and collect its first sample of the Martian soil.
Perseverance will mostly be able to drive on the Crater Floor Fractured Rough region, but due to the unknown conditions of the Séítah area, the rover will drive along the boundary of the region for safety considerations before eventually performing a “toe-dip” maneuver with one of the Séítah sand dunes after the region and its drivability are better understood.
Once the rover has finished investigating these two areas, it will return to its landing site, where it will then drive north to begin its second science campaign.
Throughout the early portions of its mission, Perseverance will be aided by Ingenuity, which at this point is functioning as a scout for the rover. As part of Ingenuity’s operations demonstration phase, the helicopter has so far provided useful color imagery of areas of geologic interest to scientists.
One such area is “Raised Ridges” — a rocky outcrop of a geologic fracture system. During Ingenuity’s ninth flight, it flew over the area and took high-definition imagery of the outcrop. Using these images, Perseverance’s planning teams now have a better understanding of where to go and where to look for certain features on the Rocky Ridges that may be of biological importance or significance.
Part of Perseverance’s unique ability to travel and perform science stems from its 2-meter long robotic arm. At the end of this arm is a suite of instruments — including a drill, camera, and X-ray — that Perseverance can use to study the Martian surface in extreme detail.
Following extensive checkouts on Mars, the robotic arm has been cleared for full science operations, allowing Perseverance to begin fulfilling its purpose — investigating, in-situ, the Martian environment with a specific goal of searching for signs of past and present life on the Red Planet.
To fulfill this goal, Perseverance will use its drill and robotic arm to collect and store samples of the Martian surface. Using its plethora of instruments, Perseverance will analyze the area of the surface where the sample will be collected before the rover’s Adaptive Caching Assembly retrieves a sample tube from inside the rover.
The Adaptive Caching Assembly will heat the tube and then insert it into a coring bit. The bit will then be transferred to the drill on the robotic arm. The drill will then slowly lower to the surface and extract a portion of material. Meanwhile, the sample tube will collect the soil, dust, and rock. Once complete, the sample in the tube should be roughly the size of a piece of chalk.
The tube will then be inserted back into the rover, where instruments will analyze it before storing it safely inside Perseverance.
This entire process, although lengthy, is vital to Perseverance’s mission. A follow-up Sample Fetch Rover from the European Space Agency (ESA) — set to arrive in 2029 after a three-year cruise to Mars — will collect these sample tubes, which Perseverance will periodically leave behind on the Martian surface.
The sample tubes collected by the Sample Fetch Rover will be returned to Earth via a Northrop Grumman-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (a solid motor rocket that will be launched with the Sample Fetch Rover) which will meet a ESA-provided Earth Return Orbiter and capsule in Martian orbit. The orbiter will then collect the samples and return them to Earth where they can be examined thoroughly with unique instruments Perseverance cannot carry.
The ESA Earth Return Orbiter, the third of the three Mars Sample Return flights, is slated to launch in October 2026 on an Ariane 6 rocket from French Guiana three months after the Mars Ascent Vehicle and Sample Fetch Rover are scheduled to be launched from the United States.
(Lead image: Perseverance takes a selfie with Ingenuity after placing the rotorcraft on the surface on Mars. Credit: NASA)