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Mars helicopter achieves fastest, farthest flight yet

The Ingenuity helicopter has successfully flown for the third time on Mars in a week. This time, the helicopter logged a flight that was faster, farther and bolder than the previous ones, according to NASA.

Ingenuity exceeded speeds and distances beyond what it proved capable of doing during testing on Earth before launching to Mars.

The helicopter flew at 1:31 a.m. ET, or 12:33 p.m. local Mars time. Data and imagery began streaming into the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, at 10:16 a.m. ET Sunday. The Perseverance rover captured an image of the helicopter in flight and shared it shortly after.

The helicopter climbed to the same altitude from its second flight — about 16 feet (5 meters) above the Martian surface — but this time it increased its speed.

During previous flights, Ingenuity was moving at about 1.1 miles per hour (0.5 meters per second). Now, the chopper has boosted that speed to 4.5 miles per hour (2 meters per second).

Ingenuity flew 164 feet (50 meters) north, almost half the length of a football field, before returning to touch down at its landing site. All total, the helicopter flew for about 80 seconds, the longest yet, and a total distance of about 330 feet (100 meters).

“While that number may not seem like a lot, consider that we never moved laterally more than about two-pencil lengths when we flight-tested in the vacuum chamber here on Earth,” wrote Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars helicopter chief pilot at JPL, in an update.

“And while the 4 meters of lateral movement in Flight Two (2 meters out and then 2 meters back) was great, providing lots of terrific data, it was still only 4 meters. As such, Flight Three is a big step, one in which Ingenuity will begin to experience freedom in the sky.”

The Perseverance rover, which serves as a communication relay between the helicopter and its mission team on Earth, is also acting as a bit of a documentary filmmaker for Ingenuity.

It captured a video of the copter’s third flight that will be able to show most of the 80-second journey. The video is expected to return to Earth in the coming days.

“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, the project’s program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, in a statement. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”

The skies over Mars

While Perseverance is able to use its cameras to snap photos and shoot video, Ingenuity is equipped with cameras of its own. The navigation camera shoots black-and-white images that help the helicopter’s computer track its location during flight.

An image from this camera shows the helicopter’s shadow on the surface of Mars during Sunday’s flight.

Helicopter team members are thrilled with the images. The researchers were only able to test so much while flying the helicopter in a test chamber on Earth. The chopper wasn’t able to move more than 1.6 feet (0.5 meter) in any given direction during testing, so they had no way of knowing if the navigation camera would be able to track the ground while moving further and faster.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the algorithm for the camera running over a long distance,” said MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s project manager at JPL, in a statement. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber.”

The helicopter’s color camera shows the perspective of Ingenuity as it flies through the Martian atmosphere.

During its second flight on April 22, Ingenuity autonomously flew for almost 52 seconds, climbing 16 feet (4.9 meters) up through the Martian atmosphere. After a brief hover, it tilted at a 5-degree angle and moved sideways for 7 feet (2.1 meters). Before touching back down safely on the surface, Ingenuity hovered again to allow its color camera to capture the view of what it looks like to fly on Mars.

Two new images from the second flight were revealed on Sunday.

The mission team believes these images demonstrate the useful capabilities that something like Ingenuity could add to future missions, such as aerial scouting.

Ingenuity, a technology demonstration, still has another week to conduct two more flights before the 31-day mission comes to an end.

“Even though we are conducting our flight tests in a tenuous atmosphere over 180 million miles (290 million kilometers) from Earth, we model our methodical approach to experimental flight on the Wright brothers’ approach,” Grip wrote. “Our plan from Day One has been to prepare like crazy, fly, analyze the data (like crazy), and then plan for an even bolder test in the next flight.”

Check during the week for coverage on the upcoming test flights. The fourth flight will likely occur within a few days, according to the agency.

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