Mars helicopter Ingenuity to make its third test flight tomorrow

Having made its successful second test flight this week, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter isn’t slowing down. The tiny helicopter, which traveled to Mars along with the Perseverance rover, is the first aircraft to fly on another planet. It will perform a series of increasingly complicated flights to spread its wings in the Martian atmosphere.

The first and second test flights involved the helicopter taking off from the surface of the planet, hovering in the air, and landing again, all performed autonomously using its onboard cameras to keep its position relative to the ground. The first test flight was a simple up and down maneuver, and the second test flight involved a more complicated sideways maneuver as well.

During the second test flight, Ingenuity even captured a picture of the Martian surface, showing the tracks left by the Perseverance rover in the regolith from where it had dropped Ingenuity off.

This is the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft. The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021. At the time this image, Ingenuity was 17 feet (5.2 meters) above the surface.
This is the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft. The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021. At the time of this image, Ingenuity was 17 feet (5.2 meters) above the surface. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now, the Ingenuity team intends to continue their testing with a third, even more complex flight. The plan is for the flight to go ahead tomorrow, Sunday, April 25, with data about the flight arriving at the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at 10:16 a.m. ET (7:16 a.m. PT).

“We’re being cautious with each new foray in the skies of Mars as we continue to build confidence in the capabilities of this new exploration platform,” the chief Ingenuity pilot at JPL, Håvard Grip, wrote in a blog post. “For the third flight, we’re targeting the same altitude, but we are going to open things up a bit too, increasing our max airspeed from 0.5 meters per second to 2 meters per second (about 4.5 mph) as we head 50 meters (164 feet) north and return to land at Wright Brothers Field. We’re planning for a total flight time of about 80 seconds and a total distance of 100 meters (330 feet).”

Wright Brothers Field is the name given to the area which is acting as the helicopter’s home base and from which the test flights are being conducted. The total movement of over 50 meters is considerably further than the helicopter has flown in testing on Earth, due to the need for testing to take place in a vacuum chamber to simulate the extremely low density of the martian atmosphere.

There should be more information available tomorrow about how this third test flight goes.

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