NASA has released a video (above) showing their Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully making its third and most complex flight to date over the surface of Mars.
The drone-like helicopter took off further and faster than its previous test flights on Sunday, April 25, including the one on Earth prior to the plane’s six-month journey to the red planet on NASA’s Perseverance rover.
The first flight last week included Ingenuity doing a brief hover, while the second a few days later included a hover and several meters of travel.
But on Sunday the 4-pound machine soared 5 meters in the air at a height of 19 inches before whizzing over the Martian surface over a distance of 50 meters, reaching a top speed of 2 meters per second.
NASA 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 about 50 seconds after take off lands.
NASA’s Dave Lavery, program manager for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter project, said that while Sunday’s flight was what the team had planned, it was still “downright amazing,” adding, “On this flight we demonstrate critical capabilities that will allow an air dimension to be added to future Mars missions. “
The team is planning at least two increasingly complex test flights for Ingenuity in the coming days, with the fifth possibly taking the helicopter over a distance of around 300 meters.
The flights are carried out autonomously based on the instructions from the team here on Earth to Perseverance, who then forward them to the helicopter.
When Ingenuity made its first flight to Mars on April 19, it was the first aircraft to perform a controlled powered flight on another planet.
Getting a machine like Ingenuity into the air on Mars is not an easy task, as the Martian atmosphere is only about 1% the density of the Earth’s surface, making it much more difficult to get a lift.
This means that Ingenuity has to spin its four carbon fiber blades, arranged in two rotors, at a speed of around 2,500 revolutions per minute (RPM) in order to be able to take off from the ground. This is much faster than the roughly 500 RPM helicopters use on Earth.
NASA’s technology demonstration should pave the way for more advanced aircraft designs that can monitor the Martian surface at close range and that whiz over rocky terrain that are difficult to navigate on ground-based rovers like Perseverance. Helicopters like Ingenuity could also be used to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers, and could even be useful for exploring other locations in our solar system.