After making history and completing two additional flights, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter could soon attempt even more ambitious forays into the skies of the Red Planet. On Friday, NASA announced it plans to transition the rotorcraft to an operational role once it completes its remaining test flights. NASA says those flights will involve more precise maneuvering, greater use of its photographic capabilities and, most of all, more significant risks. That's a substantial change for a craft that was initially only supposed to show whether flying through the atmosphere of Mars was even possible.
#MarsHelicopter is safe and healthy. Data indicate the rotorcraft didn’t transition to flight mode, which had been a possible outcome. We'll attempt the 4th flight again on April 30. First data expected the same day around 10:39a PT (1:39p ET/5:39p GMT). https://t.co/X3fdIbbHyM pic.twitter.com/UQCOD0csQk— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 29, 2021
When Ingenuity takes on those more ambitious missions will depend on how its next two sorties pan out. The helicopter was scheduled to complete its fourth flight this week but had trouble lifting off on Thursday. As of early Friday afternoon, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said it was waiting on a data downlink from Mars to see whether its second attempt at flight four went off without any issues.
We are standing by today for downlink of data from the second attempt at flight four. The time between flights four and five will be a slightly longer cadence than flights to date -- likely ~1 week. Flight six TBD. We'll keep you posted!— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 30, 2021
With Perseverance mostly scheduled to complete short drives over the next few weeks, NASA says it could send Ingenuity on short flights ahead of the rover to scout potential routes, find roadblocks and photograph the terrain ahead of it. NASA says those flights won't be critical to the success of Perseverance's mission, but they'll provide "significant benefit" to future missions.
Either way, Ingenuity's final flight will occur before the end of August. That way, NASA has enough time to do everything it plans to do with Perseverance before the end of the year, and the sun's position between Earth and Mars makes communication between the two planets nearly impossible.