In the year since NASA’s Mars helicopter first hovered above the martian surface to become the only aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet, Ingenuity has taken 23 additional flights.
Now the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is prepping the 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter for a record-breaking flight of 704 meters, a distance that will smash its current record by 77 meters.
To give that some context, that’s just short of the distance between the Lincoln Memorial and the far end of the Reflecting Pool, or six-and-a-half NFL football fields. Not bad for an autonomous flying machine in a world 166 million miles from our own.
NASA’s Mars helicopter features four specially made carbon-fiber blades arranged as two rotors that turn in opposite directions at between 2,400 and 2,800 rpm. These speeds allow the machine to achieve lift in the challenging martian atmosphere, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.
Ingenuity’s smarts are contained in a small box-like fuselage, which also includes a small heater to help it deal with the planet’s extremely cold conditions.
NASA has been using Ingenuity to test its technology with the aim of building a more advanced flying machine for future missions. As Ingenuity has already been doing for Perseverance, aircraft can assist ground-based planetary rovers by using an onboard camera to check if a location is worth further exploration. It can also search out the most efficient rover route between locations of scientific interest and map a planet’s surface from just a few meters in the air, photographing the surface in much greater detail than a high-flying orbiter.
Ingenuity completed its most recent flight, the 24th, on April 3, the team at JPL revealed this week. The flight lasted almost 70 seconds and covered a distance of just over 47 meters at a top speed of 3.2 mph. No date has yet been set for its record-breaking 25th flight.
The current Mars mission is using Perseverance to search for signs of ancient microbial life on the planet and to collect rock samples for return to Earth by a later mission. Perseverance and Ingenuity are also gathering data that could be useful for the first crewed mission to Mars, though NASA has yet to offer a solid date for the highly anticipated endeavor.
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