NASA's Mars Helicopter Ingenuity to Make First One-way Trip in Fifth Flight

NASA's Mars Ingenuity helicopter is gearing up to make its first one-way trip in what will be the experimental vehicle's fifth flight on the red planet.

The helicopter is scheduled to lift off on May 7 at 3:26 p.m. ET from an area on Mars that the space agency has named Wright Brothers Field, with the first data from the test expected to reach Earth at around 7:31 p.m. ET.

Ingenuity's four previous successful flights have all taken off from and landed at the field. But the fifth flight will be different.

Ingenuity will ascend to an altitude of 16 feet and follow the same path as the fourth flight, traveling 423 feet to the south.

But instead of heading back to the take-off location, this time, the helicopter will climb to a new record high of 33 feet and will land in a new spot after around 110 seconds, completing what will be its first one-way flight.

NASA decided on the new landing site after examining data collected during Ingenuity's fourth flight. The area appears to be very flat—perfect for the helicopter to touch down on. During the fifth flight, Ingenuity will take several color and monotone images of the surrounding area.

To communicate data back to Earth, Ingenuity must stay in the vicinity of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover, which acts as the helicopter's link with mission control.

A successful fifth flight will mark the beginning of a new demonstration phase for the helicopter—one in which NASA will examine how future rovers and aerial vehicles can work together.

"We are traveling to a new base because this is the direction Perseverance is going, and if we want to continue to demonstrate what can be done from an aerial perspective, we have to go where the rover goes," Josh Ravich, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Mechanical Engineering Lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in a blog post.

Off to new places! The #MarsHelicopter is slated for its fifth flight on May 7, with data coming down at 4:31pm PT (7:31pm ET). The rotorcraft will take off at Wright Brothers Field and will land elsewhere this time, which is another first for Ingenuity.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) May 6, 2021

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration that conducted the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021, when it climbed to an altitude of 10 feet before landing. The helicopter has since performed three more experimental flights, flying incrementally further distances and higher altitudes.

The Ingenuity mission has a 30-Martian-day experimental window involving several test flights that could have significant implications for the use of autonomous flying vehicles in future planetary exploration missions.

According to Ravich, one of the most important factors in Ingenuity's recent success is the fact that the helicopter is "even more robust" than the the NASA team had hoped.

"The power system that we fretted over for years is providing more than enough energy to keep our heaters going at night and to fly during the day. The off-the-shelf components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing great, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it's doing just fine or better," Ravich wrote in the blog post.

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter
An artist's illustration of NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the atmosphere of the red planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech