Stunning new videos show NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity soaring through the Red Planet skies like never before.
Ingenuity performed its 13th Martian flight on Sept. 4, cruising through the rugged “Séítah” region of the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater on a scouting mission for its robotic companion, NASA’s Perseverance rover.
During the 160-second flight, Ingenuity covered about 689 feet (210 meters) of horizontal distance, reached a maximum altitude of 26 feet (8 m) and performed a number of tricky maneuvers. For example, the rotorcraft snapped photos from multiple angles of an intriguing rocky outcrop that the Perseverance team may want to explore, Ingenuity team members said.
The rover was documenting all this aerial action with its two-camera Mastcam-Z imaging system, and we just got our first look at the dramatic footage, thanks to two short videos put together by the Perseverance team.
“The value of Mastcam-Z really shines through with these video clips,” Justin Maki, Mastcam-Z deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in a statement.
“Even at 300 meters [1,000 feet] away, we get a magnificent closeup of takeoff and landing through Mastcam-Z’s ‘right eye,'” Maki said. “And while the helicopter is little more than a speck in the wide view taken through the ‘left eye,’ it gives viewers a good feel for the size of the environment that Ingenuity is exploring.”
The videos, which JPL released on Thursday (Nov. 18), reveal how complicated flight number 13 was and show how deftly Ingenuity dealt with the changing terrain beneath its blades, helicopter team members said.
“We took off from the crater floor and flew over an elevated ridgeline before dipping into Séítah,” said Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip, also of JPL, said in the same statement. (JPL manages the missions of both Ingenuity and Perseverance.)
“Since the helicopter’s navigation filter prefers flat terrain, we programmed in a waypoint near the ridgeline, where the helicopter slows down and hovers for a moment,” Grip added. “Our flight simulations indicated that this little ‘breather’ would help the helicopter keep track of its heading in spite of the significant terrain variations. It does the same on the way back. It’s awesome to actually get to see this occur, and it reinforces the accuracy of our modeling and our understanding of how to best operate Ingenuity.”
Ingenuity and Perseverance landed together on Jezero’s floor in February. A few months later, the helicopter embarked on a five-flight demonstration mission designed to show that aerial exploration is feasible on the Red Planet. Ingenuity performed so well during that initial phase that it got a mission extension and is now doing scouting work for Perseverance.
The car-sized rover’s main tasks are hunting for signs of ancient Mars life in Jezero, which hosted a big lake and a river delta in the ancient past, and collecting dozens of samples for future return to Earth. Perseverance recently collected and cached its third sample, a drilled rock core rich in the greenish mineral olivine.
Both Ingenuity and Perseverance stood down for a few weeks in October during “solar conjunction,” when the sun came between Earth and Mars. Our star can corrupt communications sent between the two planets in this configuration, so NASA stops commanding its Mars robots during conjunction.
Ingenuity conducted two more flights after the Sept. 4 jaunt, one on Oct. 24 and another on Nov. 6. The helicopter team is gearing up for sortie number 16, which could take place as early as Saturday (Nov. 20).
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.