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.”