Ingenuity, the small robotic solar helicopter on Mars, as part of NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) 2020 mission, has successfully flown for the third time in a week.
According to the American space agency the helicopter logged a flight that was faster and farther than the previous ones this time. Ingenuity exceeded speeds and distances beyond what it proved capable of doing during testing on Earth before launching to Mars. 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).
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.
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).
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. With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions,” said Dave Lavery, the project’s program executive at NASA headquarters in the US, in a statement.
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.
Helicopter team members are thrilled with the images. “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 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.