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NASA has posted a video (above) showing its Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully performing its third and most complex flight yet over the Martian surface.
Lifting off on Sunday, April 25, the drone-like helicopter traveled further and faster than its previous test flights, including those carried out on Earth prior to the aircraft’s six-month ride to the red planet with NASA’s Perseverance rover.
The first flight last week involved Ingenuity performing a short hover, while the second one a few days later comprised a hover and several meters of travel.
But on Sunday, the 4-pound, 19-inch-high machine rose 5 meters into the air before whizzing across the Martian surface for a distance of 50 meters, reaching a top speed of 2 meters per second, or 4.5 mph.
NASA’s footage of the autonomous flight, captured by a camera on the Perseverance rover, shows Ingenuity rising off the ground and flying out of shot before returning to its original position and landing about 50 seconds after lift-off.
NASA’s Dave Lavery, the project’s program executive for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, said that while Sunday’s flight was what the team had planned for, it was still “nothing short of amazing,” adding, “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”
The team is planning at least two more increasingly complex test flights for Ingenuity in the coming days, with the fifth one possibly sending the helicopter a distance of around 300 meters.
The flights are being performed autonomously based on instructions sent from the team here on Earth to Perseverance, which then relays them to the helicopter.
When Ingenuity took its first-ever Mars flight on April 19, it became the first aircraft to perform controlled, powered flight on another planet.
Getting a machine like Ingenuity airborne on Mars is no mean feat as the Martian atmosphere is only about 1% of the density at Earth’s surface, making it much harder to achieve lift.
It means that to get off the ground, Ingenuity has to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at around 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), much faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by helicopters on Earth.
NASA’s technology demonstration should pave the way for more advanced aircraft designs capable of surveying the Martian surface from a close distance, buzzing over rocky terrain that ground-based rovers like Perseverance would find hard to navigate. Helicopters like Ingenuity could also be used to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers, and could even be useful for the exploration of other places in our solar system.