NASA’s Mars Helicopter Completes Its Third and Most Impressive Flight

NASA recently made history when the Ingenuity helicopter lifted off from Wright Brothers Field. Despite the placid name, Wright Brothers Field is on another planet. That’s where Ingenuity is currently stationed and where it completed its third test flight over the weekend. This was the first test to feature significant side-to-side movement, which has helped to validate the drone’s autonomous flight software. Plus, NASA has received some of the first color photos from the aircraft. 

Ingenuity arrived on Mars several months ago with the Perseverance rover, but it only took flight on April 19th. Since then, NASA has completed three flights, with the latest one being by far the most impressive. The first flight was straight up and down, but the second included a little side-to-side movement. The latest, though, took a big step for Martian flight. 

On April 25th, Ingenuity spun up its rotors and rose to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters). After that, it flew downrange 164 feet (50 meters), which is about half of a football field. Then it headed back and landed safely in Wright Brothers Field. The drone reached a maximum speed of 6.6 feet per second (2 meters per second or 4.47 miles per hour). 

A new color image captured by Ingenuity on its third test flight.

Getting Ingenuity moving laterally is an important step as it allows NASA to gauge how well the robot’s flight algorithm can track surface features. This is a vital feature of Ingenuity and any future flying Mars explorers. The planet is too far away to control robots in real-time. With rovers, NASA can transmit precise instructions to be carried out, but flight is more complicated. The robot needs to be able to identify potential hazards on the surface before it can touch down — if it moves too fast, the algorithm might not be able to keep up. This is one of the aspects of the mission NASA could not test ahead of time in a tiny Earth-based vacuum chamber. 

After setting down after the successful third flight, NASA began trickling data back to Earth. Ingenuity uses the Perseverance rover as a relay to communicate with Earth, as it’s designed to be small and light, relying on more fragile off-the-shelf hardware than the rover. This data includes some of the first color images captured by the helicopter. The Perseverance rover also captured a great video of the test (above) showing Ingenuity flying out of frame before returning for landing. 

NASA hopes to conduct many more flights with Ingenuity, gathering even more data on how it behaves on Mars. This experience will help engineers dream up flying explorers that are could carry important scientific instruments in future Mars missions. 

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