The Ingenuity Mars helicopter in the last week has aced all three of its planned test flights so far, with each one a little longer, farther and faster than the last.
During each flight, the Perseverance rover has been perched on an overlook at a safe distance, taking photos and videos like a documentary filmmaker and sending them back to mission teams on Earth.
Color images captured by the helicopter during its first two flights showed the imprints of rover tracks on the Martian surface. These were made when the rover drove the helicopter to the middle of the 33-by-33-feet (10-by-10-meter) Wright Brothers Field and dropped it off.
Now, the rover makes a nice cameo in an image taken by the 4-pound chopper during its third flight, which took place on April 25. But you’ll have to look a little closer to see it.
See that thing in the upper left corner? That’s Perseverance, or “Percy,” as her team affectionately calls her.
Ingenuity was about 16 feet (4.9 meters) in the air and 279 feet (85 meters) away from the rover when the photo was taken.
The Mars helicopter is so much more than a toy, though. The information gathered from Ingenuity’s test flights will aid in the design of other rotorcraft that could act as scouts on missions in the future, flying where rovers cannot roam.
Ingenuity, the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet, is similar to the microwave-size Sojourner rover that landed on Mars in 1997 and led to the development of rovers like Perseverance.
Ingenuity and Perseverance have been through a lot together. The helicopter was stowed in the rover’s belly for the seven-month journey from Earth to Mars. Both survived the “seven minutes of terror” plunge through the Martian atmosphere and landing on February 18. (That’s the expected seven minutes of silence when the mission team on Earth knew they would lose contact with the rover.)
Perseverance is still the helicopter’s main way of communicating with mission teams on Earth. Flight plans for Ingenuity are uploaded to the rover from Earth, which it then sends to the helicopter. In turn, the helicopter sends back data and images from its flights through the rover to Earth.
During Sunday’s flight, the helicopter climbed to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and clocked its fastest speeds yet at 4.5 miles per hour (2 meters per second). It also flew 164 feet (50 meters) north, almost half the length of a football field, before returning to touch down at its landing site. All told, the helicopter flew for about 80 seconds, the longest yet, and a total distance of about 330 feet (100 meters).
Perseverance has been documenting the helicopter’s progress, but Ingenuity is equipped with cameras of its own as well. The navigation camera shoots black-and-white images that help the helicopter’s computer track its location during flight. The helicopter’s color camera also shows the perspective of Ingenuity as it flies through the Martian atmosphere.
Ingenuity and Perseverance’s joint journey, however, will soon come to an end.
A technology demonstration, Ingenuity has a matter of days to conduct two more flights before the 31-day mission is finished.
Once this test flight window is over, Ingenuity’s tech demo will cease so that the Perseverance rover may begin its two-year scientific exploration of Mars in earnest.
Perseverance is searching for signs of ancient microbial life in Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient lake bed and river delta. Samples collected by the rover will be returned to Earth by future missions and could reveal the first evidence of past life on another planet.
Until then, Perseverance and Ingenuity still have some historic experiences to share in together, with more photos and videos to preserve the memories.