January 28, 2023

NASA’s Mars helicopter soared again, went faster, and on its third journey through the blurry air of Mars covered a total distance about the length of an American football field.

Like the first two flights, the small experimental flying robot Ingenuity carried out its instructions perfectly from Earth. At 1:31 a.m. Eastern Time – 12:33 p.m. Mars local time – it rose 16 feet above the ground and then flew 328 feet back and forth before landing back where it started.

That was about 25 times as far as the second flight three days ago. The helicopter reached a top speed of 4.5 miles per hour and the flight lasted about a minute and 20 seconds.

The flight was a test of the helicopter’s navigation system, which visually tracks its location by comparing ground features recorded by its on-board camera. The further it traveled, the more pictures the camera had to take to remember the landscape below. If it went too fast, the helicopter could lose track of where it was.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the camera’s algorithm run over a long distance,” said MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s project manager, in a NASA press release. “You can’t do that in a test chamber.”

Recognition…NASA / JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity, roughly three feet tall, is a $ 85 million project to demonstrate that controlled flight like an airplane or helicopter is possible on Mars, where the surface atmosphere is only 1 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.

It was pinned to Perseverance, NASA’s newest Mars rover, which hit the red planet in February. Before Perseverance sets out to find clues about ancient life in a dry river delta, the Ingenuity team has 30 Mars days, or about 31 Earth days, to perform five test flights of the helicopter.

“Today’s flight was what we planned, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, program manager for the helicopter project. “With this flight we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will allow us to add an air dimension to future Mars missions.”

Last Monday, Ingenuity made history as the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet. The first flight was short: a simple up and down that was a total of 39.1 seconds above the ground. The second flight on Thursday went a little higher and made a short sideways movement.

With the success of the first three flights, the helicopter’s engineers have just over a week to complete the last two, which will further enhance Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ms. Aung, the project manager, said after the first flight last week that she was hoping the final flight would fly up to 2,300 feet from its take-off point.

The fourth flight will take off in a few days, NASA said.

There are currently no plans to bring a second helicopter to Mars. However, Bob Balaram, the project’s chief engineer, said he and his colleagues had begun designing a larger Mars helicopter that could carry around 10 pounds of scientific equipment.