Last week on Mars

The fifth flight of tiny Mars helicopter Ingenuity – the one that flew it above mission expectations – took place on Friday 7 May. The robot craft took off at ‘Wright Brothers Field’ – the same spot where the it had risen and landed on all its other flights – but landed at an airfield 423 feet (129 metres) to the south. Landing in a new place is another first for the rotorcraft.

NASA said that the flight represents the rotorcraft’s transition to its new “operations demonstration phase”. They say the new phase will focus on investigating what kind of capabilities a rotorcraft operating from Mars can provide. These things might include scouting, aerial observations of areas not accessible by a rover, and detailed stereo imaging from atmospheric altitudes. NASA believes the lessons learnt will assist with future explorations of Mars, and of other alien planets.

“The fifth flight of the Mars Helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”

Mars helicopter flight path
Ingenuity’s fourth flight path is superimposed here atop terrain imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The flight lasted 108 seconds. The Ingenuity team chose the new landing site based on information gathered during the fourth flight – the first “aerial scout” operation on another world – which enabled them to generate digital elevation maps indicating almost completely flat terrain with almost no obstructions.

“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “No matter where we go from here, we will always carry with us a reminder of how much those two bicycle builders from Dayton meant to us during our pursuit of the first flight on another world.”

Mars rover Perseverance continues taking regular weather measurements at Jezero Crater, in the Isidis Planitia region of Mars’ northern hemisphere. On Mars sol (day) 75 of the mission (6 May 2021) the high temperature was -21°C, and low -80°C.

It has also recently been reported that China’s Mars rover – named Zhurong, for an ancient fire god – will attempt its long-anticipated landing mid this month. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft carrying Zhurong has been on station in Mars orbit since 10 February, collecting information about possible rover landing sites. The 240kg rover is designed to operate for about 90 Martian days.

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