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Mars Ingenuity helicopter completes its most challenging flight yet

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter continues to scoot through the Martian sky, recently completing its ninth and most challenging flight to date.

The multirotor aircraft broke several of its own records during the flight, as confirmed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California-based unit that’s overseeing the latest Mars mission.

During its most recent flight, Ingenuity flew for 166.4 seconds, beating the previous record of 139.9 seconds achieved during its sixth flight on May 23.

The 4-pound, 19-inch-high aircraft also flew a distance of 625 meters, way further than the existing record of 266 meters that it covered on its fourth flight on April 29.

The machine also managed to hit a speed of 5 meters per second, 1 mph faster than it’s been flying since its sixth flight.

JPL tweeted confirmation of Ingenuity’s successful flight, along with a photo captured by the aircraft’s downward-facing camera as it flew over the Martian surface.

#MarsHelicopter pushes its Red Planet limits. 🚁
The rotorcraft completed its 9th and most challenging flight yet, flying for 166.4 seconds at a speed of 5 m/s. Take a look at this shot of Ingenuity’s shadow captured with its navigation camera.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) July 5, 2021

Ingenuity has clearly come a long way since its historic flight on April 19 when it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet. On that flight, it climbed to an altitude of 3 meters and hovered in place for around 40 seconds before landing again. Each subsequent flight has been gradually more demanding.

JPL has been delighted with Ingenuity’s ability to comfortably handle Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, which presents challenging conditions for aircraft as they need to gain lift to stay in the sky. In the case of NASA’s Mars helicopter, engineers designed it with carbon-fiber blades arranged into two rotors that operate at 2,400 revolutions per minute, way faster than a passenger helicopter’s rotors turn on Earth, which has a thicker atmosphere than Mars.

The aircraft has already scored top marks in all of the initial challenges set out by the JPL team, namely surviving the journey from Earth to Mars aboard the spacecraft that also transported NASA’s Perseverance rover, safely deploying to the Martian surface, handling the bitterly cold temperatures on the red planet, charging itself via its solar panels, and last but not least, the process of lifting off, flying, and landing.

More advanced versions of Ingenuity could be used to explore and analyze rocky terrain on Mars and other planets that conventional wheel-based rovers can’t easily reach. The flying machine could also help to map safe routes for rovers, enabling the vehicles to move more quickly between research sites.

While Ingenuity has already surpassed expectations, the JPL team is far from done as it continues to plan more flights that push the device to its limit, thereby helping NASA to refine the design of the helicopter.

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Trevor Mogg
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