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NASA nails fifth Mars helicopter flight

Published May 10th, 2021 5:32PM EDT
ingenuity flight
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA has had a great deal of success with its Mars helicopter Ingenuity. The aircraft took the long trip from Earth to the Red Planet while strapped to the belly of the Perseverance rover, and once it was dropped off at its first Mars “airstrip” it didn’t take long for the helicopter to begin its flight testing. Now, with its fifth flight in the books, the helicopter has completely relocated to a new area of Mars and logged its longest flight so far. The chopper left the area nicknamed Wright Brothers Field and is now sitting at its second testing location in anticipation of its big brother rover traveling to the same location.

The Ingenuity project is a very important one for NASA. The helicopter is the first powered aircraft ever sent to another planet, and the fact that it works — and works very well — is a huge credit to the NASA engineers and scientists that are behind it. However, it’s not done yet, and the plucky chopper still has some life left and NASA plans to push it to its limit.

For its first four flights, the Mars helicopter took off and landed in the same location. Each of those flights got more complicated as time went on, with the first being a simple take-off and landing, and the fourth being a long back-and-forth trip across the surface of the planet. The fifth flight was the first and only (so far) where the helicopter took off and landed at two different locations. The new “airstrip” is farther south than Wright Brothers Field by 423 feet.

The chopper didn’t just break new ground by traveling that far in a straight line, however. It also set a new record for itself in altitude. When the trip was over and the helicopter had arrived over its new landing spot, its handlers decided to send it to new heights. Ingenuity rose to an altitude of 33 feet, or 10 meters, and snapped some photos before settling back down in its new home.

NASA offers a brief summary of its plans for the helicopter’s future:

The flight represents the rotorcraft’s transition to its new operations demonstration phase. This phase will focus on investigating what kind of capabilities a rotorcraft operating from Mars can provide. Examples include scouting, aerial observations of areas not accessible by a rover, and detailed stereo imaging from atmospheric altitudes. These operations and the lessons learned from them could significantly benefit future aerial exploration of Mars and other worlds.

The Perseverance rover is moving in the same general direction as Ingenuity traveled, allowing the two to continue to work together. Perseverance is one of the most important observational tools for the Ingenuity team, as it allows scientists to observe the aircraft’s flights from a distance. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next for the helicopter, but we can be sure NASA has big plans.

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