The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took a short hop flight on October 24, giving the mission team both a sigh of relief and an anticipatory look to future flights. This 14th flight of Ingenuity’s mission was a short 23-second hover, with a peak altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) above ground level, with a small sideways translation of 7 feet (2 meters) to avoid a nearby sand ripple.
While the flight was short, it was a milestone for several reasons. It was the first flight after Mars solar conjunction, an approximately two-week period of time where the Red Planet lines up behind the Sun from Earth’s perspective, and solar activity wreaks havoc on communications between the two planets. While highly unlikely, there’s always the chance something could go wrong on Mars during this down-time and period of inactivity. However, all the various robots on Mars reported in as expected after reestablishing communications on October 16.
While this two-week conjunction time might be considered a “vacation” of sorts for both the robots on Mars and the mission teams on Earth, Ginny’s team was busy poring over data from the last time the helicopter whirred its rotors – which ended up not working correctly. On September 18, (Sol 206) another brief flight was planned, but because Ingenuity detected an anomaly in two of the small flight-control servo motors (or simply “servos”) during its automatic pre-flight checkout, the helicopter did exactly what it was supposed to do: It canceled the flight. The team later determined the rotors had oscillated (wiggled) too much, and later were able to conduct tests where they worked correctly. But then they decided to wait for the next flight until after conjunction.
Additionally, as the seasons change on Mars, flight conditions become more challenging. Martian atmosphere regularly thins by about 25% in the winter. To compensate, Ingenuity team has been testing out higher rotor speeds, and on flight 14, put those higher speeds to the true test.
“The Mars helicopter successfully performed a short hop in its current airfield to test out higher rpm settings so it can fly in lower atmospheric densities on the Red Planet,” JPL tweeted. “This test also leaves the team room for an rpm increase if needed for future flights.”
In the Ingenuity blog, team members wrote that the flight proved “that Ingenuity is capable of flying in the weeks and months ahead on Mars, during which seasonal changes on the surface will result in decreases in air density.” This was also the first time Ingenuity recorded black-and-white navigation camera images at the high-rate of about seven frames a second.
Lead image caption: Mars Helicopter Sol 241: Navigation Camera: NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter acquired this image using its navigation camera. This camera is mounted in the helicopter’s fuselage and pointed directly downward to track the ground during flight. This image was acquired on Oct. 24, 2021 (Sol 241 of the Perseverance rover mission) at the local mean solar time of 12:34:15. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech