NASA’s Ingenuity has performed its third successful flight out of five, going further and faster than ever before. The little Mars helicopter started its propeller and lifted 5 meters (16 feet) in the air, the height it had previously reached during flight number two. But this time, Ingenuity didn’t do a simple, short shuffle about. It went further than ever before, breaking a few records as it did.
It flew 50 meters (164 feet) downrange, making this is the furthest flight on Mars yet. The whole aerial adventure took about 80 seconds, Ingenuity’s longest flight so far. And finally, the rotocopter flew with a top speed of 2 meters per second (6.6 feet per second), which may not seem that impressive, but at 7.24 kilometers per hour (4.5 miles per hour), it just became the fastest-ever moving vehicle on Mars.
Rovers on Mars have embodied the adage of slow and steady wins the race, with top speeds of around 5 percent of what Ingenuity has shown in the Martian air. Perseverance, the most advanced rover yet, has a top speed of 4.2 centimeters per second, or 0.16 kph (0.01 mph), for comparison.
The helicopter third flight took place Sunday, April 25, 2021, at 4:31 am, or 12:33 pm local Mars time.
“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” Dave Lavery, program executive for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”
Ingenuity is a technology demonstration – as nothing had ever flown on Mars before, NASA needed to test capabilities before potentially scaling up for future missions – so each flight has new challenges and new features to test. The vehicle flies autonomously with instructions sent from Earth hours in advance. Ingenuity’s mighty internal computer can use its camera for navigation, taking pictures, and mapping surface features so it knows where it is. The greater the distance the more the algorithm needs to consider and memorize, to bring Ingenuity back safely to its landing field.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the algorithm for the camera running over a long distance,” MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s project manager at NASA's JPL where the Mars rover missions are based, said. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber.”
The fourth flight will happen over the next few days and once again will push the envelope when it comes to what Ingenuity can do on Mars. Given the incredible success of this mission so far, a future Martian helicopter with a more hefty scientific payload is certainly on the cards, and flying vehicles could end up exploring other moons of the Solar System.