In third flight, ingenuity goes beyond any tests carried out on Earth


NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter can be seen hovering on its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left navigation camera aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter can be seen hovering on its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left navigation camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.
Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Sunday, ingenuity demonstrated once again that it was Mars’ little helicopter that could. NASA reported that Ingenuity had successfully completed its third test flight earlier today, flying fafaster and faster than ever in tests on Earth.

Ingenuity made its third flight at 1:31 a.m. ET, although NASA began receiving the data at 10:16 a.m. ET. The helicopter rose to 16 feet (5 meters), the same altitude as its second test flight, and flew 164 feet (50 meters) downstream. Ingenuity’s flight lasted 80 seconds, the space agency said, during which it managed to reach a top speed of 6.6 feet per second (2 meters per second).

On Friday, Håvard Grip, chief Ingenuity pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update that the helicopter team’s plan from day one was to prepare, fly, analyze the data, and then “plan an even more daring test on the next flight.”

When you compare today’s flight to Ingenuity’s second flight Thursday, you can certainly see that Grip wasn’t kidding. Just a few days ago, Ingenuity flew seven feet (two meters) east and came back on a 51.9 second flight. Fast forward a few days and Ingenuity walked almost half the length of a football field in 80 seconds.

“Today’s flight was what we had planned, and yet it was just amazing,” said Dave Lavery, program director for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at NASA Headquarters, in a report. Press release released by the space agency on Sunday. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will add an aerial dimension to future missions to Mars.”

The helicopter’s third test flight also tested its ability to process images taken by its black-and-white navigation camera, a device that tracks characteristics of the planet’s surface under Ingenuity. Ingenuity’s flight computer “uses the same resources as the cameras.” This is very important since the flight computer is what makes the helicopter fly autonomously after receiving instructions from NASA a few hours in advance.

Ingenuity’s camera takes more images, the greater the distance, NASA explained. However, if the helicopter flies too fast, its flight algorithm cannot follow the characteristics of the surface. The space agency had only tested ingenuity in small vacuum chambers on Earth, where it could only move about 1.6 feet (half a meter) in any direction. To mimic the Martian atmosphere, which is only 1% the thickness of the Earth, the chambers are filled with vaporous air, mostly carbon dioxide.

Given the speed, range and altitude predicted for the third test flight, NASA was unsure whether Ingenuity’s camera would follow the ground as expected as it moved faster.

“This is the first time that we have seen the camera algorithm work over a long distance,” MiMi Sung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the press release. “You can’t do this in a test chamber.”

Based on the successful flight it would appear so, but we have asked NASA for clarification on whether the camera is working as expected.

Not only that, but the Ingenuity team also pushed the helicopter to the limits by asking her to take more photos on her own, including with her color camera. NASA recently released the first color aerial images taken by Ingenuity on its second flight. You can even see tracks made by the Perseverance rover, which essentially serves as Ingenuity’s proud and vigilant parent as it zooms in on the Martian surface.

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.
Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s small helicopter is currently performing a 30 Martian days, or Earth Day 31, a technology demonstration that aims to test rotorcraft flight in the thin atmosphere of Mars. It will attempt up to five test flights in this window. The space agency said the Ingenuity team is planning the helicopter’s fourth flight, which will take place in a few days.



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