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NASA’s Mars helicopter has just flown faster than ever before

Just a week after setting a new altitude record on Mars, NASA’s impressive Ingenuity helicopter has flown faster than ever before, reaching a speed of 17.9 mph (8 meters per second) during its 60th flight. Its previous record was 15 mph (6.5 m/s) in a flight earlier this year.

Ingenuity also covered 1,116 feet (340 meters) in 133 seconds at an altitude of 53 feet (16 meters) during its speediest flight across the Martian surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the Ingenuity mission, shared news of the flight record on Tuesday in a post on social media:

60 flights – and another new record!

Ingenuity completed is Flight 60, breaking a groundspeed record by hitting ~17.9 mph (8 m/s). The mighty #MarsHelicopter covered 1,116 ft (340 m) in 133 seconds at an altitude of 53 ft (16 m). https://t.co/7DMHj9LkNX pic.twitter.com/f3LqrRtqRE

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) September 26, 2023

It’s been a great month for the JPL team as it seeks to push its valiant Ingenuity helicopter to its limits. Just a week ago, the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter set another record when it reached an altitude of 20 meters, beating its previous record by 6 meters.

But its mission isn’t all about setting records. The team sent Ingenuity to Mars with the Perseverance rover, with the pair reaching the red planet in February 2021. The drone-like flying machine arrived as a technology demonstration, with the team keen to see if such a contraption could become the first to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

In April 2021, it did exactly that, entering the history books as it rose just a few meters above the dusty Martian surface before carefully returning for a soft landing. That flight gave the team confidence to push the drone a little further with every subsequent flight.

It proved so adept at handling Mars’ super-thin atmosphere that aerial imagery captured by Ingenuity has been used by the Perseverance team to plan safe and efficient routes for the rover as it moves between locations of interest in search of evidence of ancient microbial life. The flying machine’s imagery from such a unique perspective could also prove useful for future crewed missions to the distant planet.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, as the helicopter has experienced a number of technical issues along the way. Encouragingly, despite the distance between engineers on Earth and Mars, they were all resolved.

The success of Ingenuity means NASA is likely to build more advanced designs for future missions to Mars and perhaps other celestial bodies far beyond.

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Trevor Mogg
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