The 4-pound chopper will attempt his fourth flight on the red planet on Thursday at 10:12 ET, as 12:30 local local time. Data begins to flow back to the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California at 1:21 p.m. ET.
“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of propelled, controlled flight on the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a statement.
“Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added potential that an aerial reconnaissance can bring to a scientific mission.”
Ingenuity is a demonstration of technology, which means it has a limited amount of time to meet goals set by its mission team.
The data from their experimental flights to Mars this month may inform the design of another rotorcraft to fly on Mars and other planets that could act as scouts for robbers and astronauts.
The three main objectives for Ingenuity included flying through the thin Mars atmosphere; demonstrating propelled, controlled flight on another planet; and push the capabilities Ingenuity showed in testing on Earth. All of these goals have been met so far in the course of the helicopter’s three flights.
“When Ingenuity’s landing gear touched down after that third flight, we knew we had more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” said J. “Bob” Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL, in a statement. “Now we plan to extend our range, speed and durability to gain further insight into performance.”
According to the fourth flight plan, Ingenuity will ascend to its usual altitude of 5 meters and then fly south for 276 feet (84 meters). It will pass over rocks, small impact craters and sand dunes and use its black-and-white navigation camera to capture this intriguing landscape every 1.2 meters (4 meters).
Ingenuity will travel a total of 436 feet (133 meters) downhill from its “helipad” in Wright Brothers Field, stopping for a hovercraft and collecting images with its color camera before returning to its landing site.
“To achieve the distance required for this reconnaissance flight, we will break our own Mars records set during flight three,” said Johnny Lam, backup pilot for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “We increase the time in the air from 80 seconds to 117, increase our maximum air velocity from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than double our total range.”
The Perseverance rover will also be ready to take pictures and videos of Ingenuity’s flight.
Once data and images are returned from the fourth flight, the mission team will determine its plan for the fifth exit of the helicopter. Those plans for the remaining flight campaign will be discussed during a virtual briefing held by NASA on Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET.
“We’ve kicked off several options on what a flight five might look like,” Balaram said. “But ask me about what they entail after a successful flight four. The team remains committed to building our flight experience one step at a time.”