Tuesday, April 9, 2024

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captures its longest, fastest flight

On April 18, 2022, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made a record-breaking 25th flight. The black-and-white navigation camera aboard the rotorcraft captured its longest and fastest flight to date on the Red Planet.

The helicopter covered a distance of 2,310 feet (704 meters) at a speed of 12 mph (5.5 meters per second) in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

The footage of the 161.3-second flight was sped up approximately five times. In the video, Ingenuity first reaches an altitude of 33 feet (10 meters), then moves southwest and accelerates to 12 mph in less than three seconds. The rotorcraft first flies over a group of sand ripples, then, about halfway through the video, several rock fields. Finally, relatively flat and featureless terrain appears below, providing a good landing spot.

“For our record-breaking flight, Ingenuity’s downward-looking navigation camera provided us with a breathtaking sense of what it would feel like gliding 33 feet above the surface of Mars at 12 miles per hour,” said Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California

The navigation camera is programmed to deactivate whenever the rotorcraft is within 3 feet (1 meter) distance from the surface. This helps ensure any dust kicked up during takeoff and landing won’t interfere with the navigation system as it tracks features on the ground.

Ingenuity’s flights are autonomous – pilots at JPL plan them and send commands to the Perseverance Mars Rover, which then relays those commands to the helicopter. Onboard sensors provide real-time data to Ingenuity’s navigation processor and main flight computer during a flight, which guides the helicopter in flight.

Flying on Mars is not easy, but Ingenuity manages to impress every time. Recently, mission controllers lost communication with Ingenuity after it entered a low-power state. Fortunately, the rotorcraft is now back in contact and getting adequate energy from its solar array to charge its six lithium-ion batteries. The team is currently preparing for Ingenuity’s 29th flight.