Ingenuity Mars Helicopter breaks records with 9th flight
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter that has proven itself to be the star of the Perseverance mission recently made its ninth and most daring flight to date.
Flight nine took place at 2:03 a.m. PDT (9:03 UTC) July 5, 2021. However, it would be later that morning before results of Ingenuity’s flight arrived from Mars.
“The mood in the ground control room was jubilant when we learned that Ingenuity was alive and well after completing a journey spanning 2,051 feet (625 meters) of challenging terrain,” reads a July 7 status update on the flight, written by Ingenuity Chief PIlot Havard Grip and Perseverance Deputy Project Scientist Ken Williford. “Flight 9 was not like the flights that came before it. It broke our records for flight duration and cruise speed, and it nearly quadrupled the distance flown between two airfields.”
According to NASA, Ingenuity was in the air for 2 minutes and 46 seconds and traversed an area called “Séítah,” which consists of rugged terrain such as ripples and ridges that could prove to be insurmountable for the Perseverance rover itself. As such, the rover is expected to navigate around this region.
Ingenuity, however, essentially took a shortcut across Séítah. This flight is also expected to provide science value by providing the first close view of major science targets that Perseverance isn’t expected to reach for a while, according to NASA.
Flight nine was the longest distance Ingenuity has flown to date and also the fastest speed flown by the helicopter, which reached some 5 meters per second over the Martian terrain.
However, what might be the most important envelope expansion was the flight over rough terrain. Normally, the helicopter navigates by taking pictures of the flat terrain beneath it and analyzing how features move in successive frames. However, the Séítah region is unlike anything the Martian helicopter has ever traversed, thus expanding the navigation algorithm beyond its design envelope.
According to NASA, this flight saw Ingenuity first fly over what appeared to be a heavily-eroded crater. It then descended over “sloped and undulating” terrain before finally climbing again to emerge and land on a flat plain southwest of flight nine’s starting point.
“It may seem strange that the details of the terrain would matter as much as they do for a vehicle that travels through the air,” the July 7 update reads. “The reason has to do with Ingenuity’s navigation system and what it was originally designed for: a brief technology demonstration at a carefully chosen experimental test site.”
According to the July 7 status update, the algorithm was simplified by telling the helicopter to assume it was flying over flat terrain. However, problems can arise when those features move at different rates depending on the slope of the ground.
NASa said this can cause errors in Ingenuity’s estimated heading, causing the helicopter to fly in a different direction than originally intended.
The engineering team’s solution to this was to have Ingenuity fly slower when it dipped into the crater in order to mitigate early heading errors as it traveled farther downrange.
“We also adjusted some of the detailed parameters of the navigation algorithm that we have not had to touch so far in prior flights,” Grip and Williford said in the update. “And we carved out a much larger airfield than in prior flights, with a radius of 164 feet (50 meters). We ended up landing approximately 154 feet (47 meters) away from the center of that airfield.”
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.