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NASA’s Mars helicopter aiming for two records on next flight

NASA’s diminutive Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has so far exceeded expectations, handling the red planet’s tough conditions with apparent ease during five separate test flights in the space of a month.

The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission, is now preparing to send Ingenuity on its sixth flight since its historic maiden hover on April 19.

Having completed the technology demonstration phase that proved Ingenuity’s ability to achieve flight in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere — on one mission staying aloft for nearly two minutes while flying 266 meters — the team is now moving to the operations demonstration phase that will seek to learn more about how such flights can assist future exploration of Mars and other planets.

Faster, longer

The sixth flight will see the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter ascend to 10 meters (33 feet) before flying southwest for around 150 meters (492 feet). At that point, the machine will use an onboard camera to acquire color imagery of an area of interest to researchers while it continues to fly south for around 20 meters (66 feet).

“Stereo imagery of the sand ripples and outcrops of bright rocks at the site will help demonstrate the value of an aerial perspective for future missions,” JPL said on its website.

After completing its image collection, the helicopter will fly northeast for 50 meters (164 feet) to a new landing location.

JPL notes that during its sixth flight, Ingenuity, which flies autonomously after receiving instructions from the team, will be pushed to a record groundspeed of 9 mph (4 meters per second) while staying aloft for 140 seconds — a period longer than any of its previous missions.

“It is also the first time the helicopter will land at an airfield which it did not survey from the air during a previous mission,” JPL said, explaining that this time around, the team is relying on imagery gathered by the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

JPL is expected to release more information about the flight schedule any day now, and we’ll update here when we hear about it. In the meantime, dust off your 3D specs and check out this immersive footage of a recent Ingenuity flight on Mars.

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