NASA‘s mini helicopter Ingenuity on Sunday successfully completed its third flight on Mars, travelling even farther and hitting a peak speed of 4.5mph – four times faster than before.
After two initial flights during which the craft hovered above the Red Planet’s surface, the helicopter on this third flight covered 64ft of distance, rising 16ft before moving sideways 164ft – almost half the length of a football field.
‘Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,’ said Dave Lavery, the Ingenuity project’s program executive.
The Perseverance rover, which carried the four-pound rotorcraft to Mars, filmed the 80-second third flight on Mastcam-Z. NASA said Sunday that video clips would be sent to Earth in the coming days.
The lateral flight was a test for the helicopter’s autonomous navigation system, which completes the route according to information received beforehand.
After two initial flights during which the craft hovered above the Red Planet’s surface, the helicopter on this third flight (pictured) covered 64ft of distance, rising 16ft before moving sideways 164ft – almost half the length of a football field
NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its left Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This is one still frame from a sequence captured by the camera while taking video
‘If Ingenuity flies too fast, the flight algorithm can’t track surface features,’ NASA explained in a statement about the flight.
Ingenuity’s flights are challenging because of conditions vastly different from Earth’s – foremost among them a rarefied atmosphere that has less than one percent the density of our own.
This means that Ingenuity’s rotors, which span four feet, have to spin at 2,400 revolutions per minute to achieve lift – about five times more than a helicopter on Earth.
NASA announced it is now preparing for a fourth flight. Each flight is planned to be of increasing difficulty in order to push Ingenuity to its limits.
The Ingenuity experiment will end in one month in order to let Perseverance return to its main task: searching for signs of past microbial life on Mars.
Ingenuity made its first historic flight on Monday April 19, going up 10ft, hovering, snapping a photo, and returning to the newly named ‘Wright Brothers Field’.
This black-and-white image was taken by the navigation camera aboard NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter during its third flight Sunday
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on Sunday, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover
INGENUITY: THE SMALL ROTORCRAFT THAT TOOK TO THE MARTIAN SKY
Ingenuity was designed as a technology demonstrator rather than carrying any of its own science experiments or equipment. It rode to Mars attached to the belly of the SUV-size Perseverance rover.
The helicopter took off from the ‘Wright Brothers Field’ on Monday April 19, making history as the first powered flight on another world.
For the first flight, the helicopter took off, climbed to about 10ft above the ground, hovered in the air briefly, completed a turn, and then landed.
It is built to be light and strong to survive the harsh Martian environment. It weighs just under 4lb and is only 19 inches tall as it has to fly in the much thinner atmosphere – about 1% that of the atmosphere found on Earth.
It can fly up to 980ft, go up to 15ft in the sky and can spend about 90 seconds in the air before landing. The rotors are 4ft in diameter and the craft includes solar panels that charge lithium-ion batteries. It has a 30 day lifespan, with a total of five flights expected in that time.
Mission project lead, MiMi Aung, said every image of the helicopter on Mars is special, but the most iconic is the one taken by the craft showing its shadow on the surface, something Ingenuity replicated with the second flight.
NASA scientists say they plan to push Ingenuity ‘to the limit’ with every test flight between now and the end of the flight window in mid-May.
Asked if NASA wants its helicopter to crash to show it has tested the full range of its capabilities, Aung, said she expects it will ‘meet its limit’.
The 19 inch tall and 4ft diameter helicopter will attempt to complete four more test flights involving further distances and higher altitudes in the next two weeks.
Ingenuity arrived at the Jezero Crater on February 18 after an eight-month journey spanning nearly 300 million miles, tucked inside the belly of Perseverance.
After the spacecraft landed, it dropped the drone on to the ground so Ingenuity could prepare for its maiden flight.
It is designed to be mostly autonomous, so NASA will not be able to control the helicopter remotely, relying exclusively on the onboard AI to control flight.
This is because of the distance between Earth and Mars – it takes more than 11 minutes to get a radio signal back to Earth.
Second flight: The US space agency said it climbed up to 16ft above the surface, hovered, tilted slightly and then moved sideways 7ft. When in position it hovered again to take a series of colour photos before landing
Ingenuity lead, MiMi Aung, said every image of the helicopter on Mars is special, but the most iconic is the one taken by the craft showing its shadow on the surface (right), which she compared in importance to the first image of Buzz Aldrin’s boot print on the Moon in 1969 (left)
Ingenuity as seen on Mars on April 7, 2021 in a photo taken by the rover Perseverance. The Ingenuity experiment will end in one month in order to let Perseverance return to its main task: searching for signs of past microbial life on Mars
WHAT IS MASTCAM-Z USED TO FILM INGENUITY FLIGHTS
The main purpose of Mastcam-Z, a camera mounted on a mast attached to Perseverance, is to take photos and video in high definition.
It is also able to capture panoramic, colour and 3D images of features in the atmosphere and on the surface.
It has a zoom lens so it can magnify distant targets, making it perfect to track the first Ingenuity flight.
It is mounted at the eye level of a 6 and a half foot tall person with two cameras about 9.5 inches apart.
NASA says it is the ‘main eyes’ of the Perseverance rover.
It is unlikely future versions will be controllable by humans, unless it is sent to the planet along with the first human mission in 2035.
The technology tested in this Mars copter could allow additional support to survey the terrain for rovers and humans alike in the future, NASA explained.
‘It could also access difficult to access cliffs that cannot be reached by rovers. A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal.’
Another successful technology demonstration on Mars this week saw the MOXIE box attached to Perseverance generate oxygen from carbon dioxide taken from the thin Martian atmosphere.
It’s hoped one day the MOXIE technology could produce oxygen for astronauts on the Red Planet or fuel to help them return to Earth.
NASA MARS 2020: THE MISSION WILL SEE THE PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER SEARCH FOR LIFE
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth.
Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover will explore an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.
It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.
Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) will search for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed inside the crater and will collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system