Ingenuity helicopter aces 3rd test flight over the Martian surface

Everyone’s favorite resident Martian, the helicopter Ingenuity, has passed its third test flight with flying colors. The tiny craft, which is the first aircraft to fly on another planet, has flown a considerable distance for the first time, following two previous test flights which saw it rise into the air and perform a sideways maneuver.

“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for Ingenuity at NASA Headquarters, 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 test flight went ahead at 1:31 a.m. ET (4:31 a.m. PT) on Sunday, April 25, when the helicopter took off from the Martian surface. It rose 5 meters into the air, then flew a distance of 50 meters reaching a nippy top speed of 2 meters per second, the equivalent of 4.5 mph.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

This was the fastest and farthest that the helicopter has flown thus far. One reason the helicopter has not flown far before, even when testing on Earth, is that tests have to performed in a vacuum chamber to simulate the low air density on Mars.

The vacuum chamber is only a limited size, so there isn’t enough space for the helicopter to maneuver much — there’s only enough room for it to move around half a meter in any direction. So the team had to keep their fingers crossed that their calculations would pay off any the helicopter would be able to move around in the martian atmosphere.

All of their preparations seem to have paid off, as the helicopter is performing admirably. Despite potential issues caused by the martian environment like the presence of dust and the communication delay between there and Earth, Ingenuity is flying well.

“When you’re in the test chamber, you have an emergency land button right there and all these safety features,” said Gerik Kubiak, a software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We have done all we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly free without these features.”

This black and white image was taken by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter during its third flight on April 25, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The longer flight was also an opportunity to see how the helicopter’s onboard camera performed. The camera is used to take images of the terrain beneath so the helicopter can maneuver autonomously. But it also captured this striking image of the shadow of the helicopter on the surface below.

“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. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber.”

The team is now preparing for a forth test flight, which is expected to go ahead within the next few days.

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