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NASA’s Mars helicopter aiming for new record on next flight

Save for the occasional glitch, NASA couldn’t be happier with the way its Ingenuity Mars helicopter is performing on the red planet.

Its first flight on April 19 saw Ingenuity become the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet, effortlessly handling Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere. Since then, the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall machine has nailed three additional flights of increasing complexity.

Following Ingenuity’s most recent test flight last week, in which it flew more than 250 meters in a journey lasting 117 seconds, the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is now gearing up for Ingenuity’s fifth flight, set for Friday, May 7.

The targeted takeoff time is 3:26 p.m. ET (12:26 p.m. PT), with data from the flight expected to reach JPL’s base in California at 7:31 p.m. ET (4:31 p.m. PT).

Off to new places! The #MarsHelicopter is slated for its fifth flight on May 7, with data coming down at 4:31pm PT (7:31pm ET). The rotorcraft will take off at Wright Brothers Field and will land elsewhere this time, which is another first for Ingenuity.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) May 6, 2021

The helicopter will take off from the same location as all of its previous flights — a spot dubbed “Wright Brothers Field” in a nod to the American aviation pioneers. But instead of landing back at the same spot as it has done on all four previous flights, this time Ingenuity will land in a new place.

The aircraft will follow the same route as flight four, heading south 129 meters (423 feet) at an altitude of 5 meters (16 feet) before climbing to a new height record of 10 meters (33 feet), where it will take some photos with its onboard cameras before landing. Ingenuity’s first-ever one-way trip is expected to last for about 110 seconds.

NASA said that when the helicopter arrives at its new location, the team will begin work on a new demonstration phase that will aim to show what this dronelike machine will be able to bring to future missions on the red planet.

We can expect, for example, that future Mars helicopters will be used to capture imagery of parts of the Martian surface that wheel-based rovers are unable to reach, such as rocky terrain. With their speed and agility, helicopters could also be used to fly ahead of a rover, using their cameras to help find the best route for the rover to take, allowing the vehicle to move more swiftly across the ground and enabling the mission team to reach research locations much more quickly.

JPL delivered even more good news this week, revealing that the Mars helicopter is even more robust than it had hoped. “The power system that we fretted over for years is providing more than enough energy to keep our heaters going at night and to fly during the day,” JPL said. “The off-the-shelf components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing great, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it’s doing just fine or better.”

Be sure to check back to find out how Ingenuity fared on its fifth flight on Friday.

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