The most popular Martian of all, the Ingenuity helicopter, passed its third test flight with flying colors. The tiny plane, the first plane to fly on another planet, has flown a substantial distance for the first time after two previous test flights in which it soared in the air and performed a sideways maneuver.
“Today’s flight was what we planned, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, program manager for Ingenuity at NASA headquarters, in a statement. “With this flight, we are demonstrating important capabilities that will allow us to add an air dimension to future Mars missions.”
The test flight took place on Sunday, April 25th, at 1:31 a.m. (4:31 a.m.) when the helicopter took off from the surface of Mars. It soared 5 meters in the air and then flew a distance of 50 meters to reach a brisk top speed of 2 meters per second, which is equivalent to 4.5 miles per hour.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will hover during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as shown by the left navigation camera on board NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover. NASA / JPL-Caltech
This was the fastest and most distant the helicopter has flown to date. One reason the helicopter has not yet flown far even when tested on Earth is that tests must be performed in a vacuum chamber to simulate the low density of air on Mars.
The vacuum chamber is limited in size so the helicopter doesn’t have enough room to maneuver – there is only enough room to move half a meter in each direction. So the team had to keep their fingers crossed that their calculations would pay off if the helicopter could move in the Martian atmosphere.
All of their preparations seem to have paid off as the helicopter performs admirably. Despite possible problems caused by the Martian environment, such as the presence of dust and the communication delay between there and Earth, Ingenuity flies well.
“When you’re in the test chamber, you have an emergency landing button right there and all these safety features,” said Gerik Kubiak, software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We have done everything we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly freely without these features.”
This black and white image was captured by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter during its third flight on April 25, 2021. NASA / JPL-Caltech
The longer flight was also an opportunity to see how the helicopter’s on-board camera behaves. The camera is used to take pictures of the terrain below so that the helicopter can maneuver autonomously. But it also captured that stunning image of the helicopter’s shadow on the surface below.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the camera’s algorithm run over a long distance,” said MiMi Aung, project manager for the helicopter at JPL. “You can’t do that in a test chamber.”
The team is now preparing for a fourth test flight, which is expected to take place in the next few days.