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NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter nails ‘risky’ 12th flight on the red planet

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has successfully completed its 12th flight on Mars in what was one of its most challenging outings to date.

The flight earlier this week took place inside the South Séítah region of Jezero Crater, a location that scientists believe could contain evidence of ancient life on the red planet.

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The 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter began by climbing 32.8 feet (10 meters) into the air before flying a distance of about 1,476 feet (450 meters) in a trip that lasted 169 seconds — its longest to date.

A dozen for the books!🚁The #MarsHelicopter’s latest flight took us to the geological wonder that is the “South Séítah” region. It climbed 32.8 ft (10 m) for a total of 169 seconds and flew ~1,476 ft (~450 m) roundtrip to scout the area for @NASAPersevere.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 17, 2021

During its time in the air, NASA’s first-ever Mars helicopter performed a range of maneuvers — including hovers and sidesteps — to snap two photos of a location of interest from 5 meters apart. This will allow the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission, to create a 3D image to help the Perseverance rover team decide if the location is worthy of closer examination.

The flight was deemed particularly risky as it was the first time for Ingenuity to fly over an uneven landscape, which the JPL team feared could have confused the helicopter’s navigation sensors.

“Ingenuity’s navigation system — which was originally intended to support a short technology demonstration — works on the assumption that it is flying across flat (or nearly flat) terrain,” the team said prior to the flight. “Deviations from this assumption can introduce errors that can lead both to temporary excursions in roll and pitch (tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern), as well as long-term errors in the helicopter’s knowledge of its position.” In the event, the team’s fears were unfounded and so it can now start planning the helicopter’s next flight.

Ingenuity became the first aircraft to achieve controlled, powered flight on another planet when it hovered a few meters above the Martian surface in April 2021. Since then, the helicopter has been taking increasingly complex flights as the team pushes the aircraft to the limit.

The initial plan was to use the helicopter as a test device to see if a more advanced airborne vehicle based on Ingenuity’s design would be able to assist other planetary missions. But Ingenuity performed so well during its early test flights that it’s already able to provide the Perseverance rover team with aerial data as it searches for areas of interest that could unlock many of the red planet’s long-held secrets.

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