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Last week’s maiden Mars flight by NASA’s diminutive Ingenuity helicopter represented a remarkable feat of engineering as it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.
Since then, the drone-like flying machine has taken two additional flights of increasing complexity, with the next one planned for Thursday, April 29.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operating the Mars mission, has revealed that Ingenuity’s fourth airborne adventure will see the team “push [the aircraft’s] performance envelope” by flying it further and faster than ever before.
It means we can expect to see the 4-pound, 19-inch-high aircraft climb to an altitude of 5 meters before setting a new flight-time record of 117 seconds, 37 seconds longer than its previous effort. The autonomous rotorcraft will also be instructed to increase its airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and to fly 133 meters across the Martian surface — 83 meters further than its last flight.
During part of its trip, Ingenuity will use its downward-facing navigation camera to capture images of the Martian surface every 1.2 meters. Finally, the helicopter will hover briefly to take photos with its color camera before heading back to its starting point. Capturing detailed imagery of the surface is likely to be one of the main activities of a future, more advanced helicopter, so the team will be keen to see how Ingenuity fares during Thursday’s test.
“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. “Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”
Achieving lift on Mars is particularly challenging because of the planet’s extremely thin atmosphere, which is around 1% the density at Earth’s surface. For Ingenuity to get airborne, the aircraft had to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), a good deal faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by a helicopter on Earth.
The fourth Ingenuity flight is set to get underway on Thursday, April 29, at 10:12 a.m. ET (7:12 a.m. PT), with the first data expected to reach JPL’s California base at 1:21 p.m. ET (10:21 a.m. PT).