NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity will attempt its boldest flight yet today

After three successful test flights, NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is ready to push the envelope in the skies of the Red Planet.

The small chopper will attempt its fourth flight today (April 29) at its Wright Brothers Field in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it landed with NASA’s Perseverance rover, and this one aims to be its biggest and boldest yet.

“When Ingenuity’s landing legs touched down after that third flight, we knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” Ingenuity chief engineer J. “Bob” Balaram of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “Now we plan to extend our range, speed, and duration to gain further performance insight.”

The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity is expected to take off at 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT) to make its fourth aerial sortie. The data from the flight should arrive at JPL at 1:21 p.m. EDT (1721 GMT), NASA officials said.

Ingenuity made history with its first flight on April 19, when it hovered just 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground. Since then, it has made two more flights, each one bigger than the last. The chopper’s most recent flight occurred Sunday (April 25), when Ingenuity reached a height of 16 feet (5 m), flew 164 feet (50 m) downrange and reached a top speed of 6.6 feet per second, which is about 4.5 mph (7.2 kph). It also captured a stunning photo of the Perseverance rover from the air.

For Ingenuity’s fifth flight, the helicopter’s controllers aim to fly faster and longer. If all goes according to plan, Ingenuity will fly up to a height of 16 feet and reach a top speed of 8 mph (12.8 kph) during the flight. It will first fly south for about 276 feet (84 m) to photograph sand ripples, rocks and small craters from above. If no issues pop up, Ingenuity is expected to reach a point 436 feet (133 m) downrange, hover and take photos, and then return to its Wright Brothers Field home.

“To achieve the distance necessary for this scouting flight, we’re going to break our own Mars records set during flight three,” said Mars Helicopter backup pilot Johnny Lam in the same statement. “We’re upping the time airborne from 80 seconds to 117, increasing our max airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than doubling our total range.”

If Ingenuity’s fourth flight goes well, the helicopter could attempt an even more audacious fifth and final flight. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said earlier this month that she’d like the helicopter to travel about 2,000 feet (600 m) on that final flight, if it was possible. But plans for the fifth flight will only be finalized after this fourth trip, Ingenuity’s handlers said.

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars Feb. 18 to deliver Ingenuity and begin a planned two-year mission to collect samples of the Red Planet and search for signs of past life. Ingenuity’s five flights, which are spread out over a month of the mission, are a technology demonstration to prove that flying on Mars is possible and could be useful for future missions. Ingenuity’s flight window for its five flights closes in early May.

“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of powered, controlled flight at the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in the statement. “Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”

Mars helicopter Ingenuity misses takeoff for 4th flight on Red Planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity was supposed to get a real workout this morning (April 29), but things didn’t go as planned.

The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper was scheduled to lift off from the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater today around 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT), kicking off its fourth flight on the Red Planet. That didn’t happen.

“Aim high, and fly, fly again. The #MarsHelicopter’s ambitious fourth flight didn’t get off the ground, but the team is assessing the data and will aim to try again soon. We’ll keep you posted,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity’s technology-demonstrating mission, said via Twitter today.

Ingenuity also had a hiccup in the leadup to its first flight attempt, failing to transition to flight mode as planned. In response, the helicopter team altered the command sequence beamed from Earth — a fix that allowed Ingenuity to fly on Mars for the first time on April 19.

Tests here on Earth suggested that fix would be effective about 85% of the time, Ingenuity team members said. It’s possible that the same issue cropped up today, and the latest attempt just fell into the unlucky 15% slot. But we’ll have to wait until Ingenuity’s handlers have performed the requisite analyses to find out more.

Ingenuity landed with NASA’s Perseverance rover on Feb. 18 inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero, which hosted a big lake and a river delta in the ancient past.

Ingenuity deployed from Perseverance’s belly on April 3 and began prepping for its flight campaign, which is designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars.

The helicopter has performed three flights to date, one apiece on April 19, April 22 and April 25. Those sorties have gotten increasingly ambitious, with the solar-powered chopper traveling 330 feet (100 meters) at a top speed of 4.5 mph (7.2 kph) during April 25’s 80-second flight.

The fourth flight was designed to push those boundaries even more. Today’s plan called for Ingenuity to cover about 872 feet (266 m) of ground and reach a top speed of 8 mph (13 kph) while staying aloft for 117 seconds, NASA officials said.

Ingenuity’s flight window is coming to an end. The campaign is capped at five flights over a one-month stretch from the April 3 deployment date, because Perseverance needs to start focusing on its own mission, which involves hunting for signs of long-gone Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth.

(Perseverance has been documenting and supporting Ingenuity’s work; for example, communications to and from the helicopter must go through the rover.)

It’s unclear at this point if Ingenuity will be able to squeeze five flights in before its time is up, but the helicopter team members have said they will do their best to make that happen.

Stratolaunch flies world’s largest airplane on 2nd test flight

The biggest airplane ever built now has two flights under its belt.

Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier plane, which is being groomed to haul hypersonic vehicles aloft, conducted its second-ever test flight Thursday morning (April 29).

The giant aircraft, which features a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters), took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California at 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT; 7:28 local California time) on a data-gathering shakeout cruise that lasted three hours and 14 minutes.

Roc reached a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet (4,267 m) and a top speed of 199 mph (320 kph) during Thursday’s test flight, which Stratolaunch deemed a success.

“We’re very pleased with how the Stratolaunch aircraft performed today, and we are equally excited about how much closer the aircraft is to launching its first hypersonic vehicle,” Stratolaunch chief operating officer Zachary Krevor said during a postflight news conference today.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen established Stratolaunch in 2011 with the idea that Roc would be used to launch satellites in midair. But Allen died in October 2018 without seeing that vision become reality, or even seeing the twin-fuselage Roc get off the ground. The plane didn’t make its first — and, until today, only — test flight until April 2019.

The company was sold in October 2019 to its current owners, who recast Roc’s role. The plane will now serve as a mobile launch platform for hypersonic vehicles, maneuverable craft that travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound.

Stratolaunch is developing its own family of hypersonic vehicles, including a reusable 28-foot-long (8.5 m) craft called Talon-A, which will be the first to fly with Roc. But that won’t happen for a while yet; Roc needs to make a number of additional solo flights first, company representatives said today.

If all goes according to plan, the first drop tests with Roc and a Talon-A test article will occur early next year. An expendable version of Talon-A will reach hypersonic speeds later in 2022, and the first flight with the reusable Talon-A variant will follow in 2023, said Stratolaunch chief technology officer Daniel Millman.

The data gathered during Talon-A flights might be of interest to the U.S. military, which has been developing its own hypersonic vehicles for years now, though none are operational yet. (Hypersonic vehicles are good weapon-delivery systems, because their maneuverability makes them tougher to counteract than traditional ballistic missiles.)

“One of the areas that we’re looking at is, how can we help the Department of Defense in mitigating risks for a lot of their expensive flight testing?” Millman said. “Our testbed has the ability to carry payloads. It has the ability to test materials. It has the ability to fly a variety of profiles that are of interest to folks across the spectrum both offensively and defensively in terms of hypersonics.”