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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter sets new flight records on Mars

NASA’s space helicopter has set two new flight records on Mars.

During what the mission team described as Ingenuity’s “most ambitious flight” among its 25 trips to date, the 4-pound, 19-inch-high helicopter flew a distance of 2,324.2 feet (708.4 meters), smashing its previous record of 2,072.8 feet (631.8 meters) by 251.4 feet (76.6 meters).

It also edged to its fastest flight speed yet, hitting 12.3 mph (0.5 m/s) and beating its previous record by 1.3 mph (0.6 m/s).

Ingenuity’s record-breaking flight took place on Friday, April 8, though the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the mission, waited until Tuesday to share the news.

Ingenuity entered the history books in April 2021 when it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet. The drone-like flying machine arrived at the martian surface with the Perseverance rover for an ambitious mission aimed at not only testing Ingenuity, but also searching for evidence of ancient microbial life, collecting rock samples for future return to Earth, and gathering data beneficial for upcoming crewed missions to the red planet.

The 25th helicopter flight takes Ingenuity closer to its next destination: A delta inside the Jezero Crater that could contain evidence of ancient microbial life. The Perseverance rover is also heading to the same place, carrying with it a suite of tools for examination of rocks and soil in the area.

Ingenuity’s latest flight was set up in such a way as to avoid flying over hardware on the martian surface that was discarded by Perseverance when the rover — with Ingenuity attached to its underbelly — reached the planet in February 2021, as it was feared some components could interfere with the helicopter’s flight instruments, possibly causing a crash.

NASA’s first space helicopter has performed way beyond expectations, giving engineers the confidence to consider building a more advanced flying machine for future missions. With its ability to fly at low altitudes over any kinds of terrain, such a machine can use onboard cameras to build detailed maps, as well as search for the safest and most efficient routes for ground-based rovers to take.

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Trevor Mogg
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