Photo: NASA via Getty
CAPE CANAVERAL, April 26, 2021 ~ Sunday, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took its third flight, flying faster and farther than it had in any of its tests on Earth.
“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” said Dave Lavery, the project’s program executive for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”
Vacuum chambers at test labs on Earth are filled with primarily carbon dioxide, to simulate the thin Martian atmosphere; they don’t have room for even a tiny helicopter to move more than about a foot and a half in any direction. That posed a challenge: Would the camera track the ground as designed while moving at higher speed on the Red Planet?
Perserverance video footage of Flight Three.
The helicopter’s black-and-white navigation camera tracks surface features, and this flight put the onboard processing of these images to the test. Ingenuity’s flight computer, which autonomously flies the craft based on instructions sent up hours before data is received back on Earth, utilizes the same resources as the cameras. Over greater distances, more images are taken. If Ingenuity flies too fast, the flight algorithm can’t track surface features.
“When you’re in the test chamber, you have an emergency land button right there and all these safety features,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory Software Engineer Gerik Kubiak. “We have done all we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly free without these features.”
This third flight came just days after the first color photos taken by the aircraft during flight two were released, showing tracks from Perseverance on the Martian surface. The fourth flight is planned to take place in the next few days.