NASA’s Perseverance Martian rover may have been a milestone achievement but it’s the Ingenuity helicopter that’s taking all of the spotlight in the news. Made from off-the-shelf parts and running Linux and open source programs, the helicopter’s performance continues to impress NASA scientists. In its third test flight, the helicopter was able to break its own speed and distance record, a noteworthy achievement considering NASA never had the room to test Ingenuity that way.
It’s not exactly easy to test a flying contraption here on Earth for conditions it would meet on Mars. While NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) does have vacuum chambers that can recreate the atmospheric conditions on Mars, it only spans 1.6 feet (0.49 meters) in any direction. In other words, there isn’t enough room for the copter to fly.
Compare that to the numbers that Ingenuity achieved on its third flight. It rose up to 16 feet (5 meters) just like before but this time traversed 164 feet (50 meters) at 6.6 feet per second (2 meters per second). That, so far, has been the farthest and the fastest that it has ever flown.
Ironically, Ingenuity shouldn’t fly too fast. Its automated flight system requires that it track surface features using its black and white navigation camera. Fly too fast and the flight algorithm wouldn’t be able to properly keep track of and analyze Mars’ surface. That algorithm was also used for the first time in this flight since it couldn’t be tested properly here on Earth.
Of course, Ingenuity also has a color camera that takes photos of Mars’ surface, something that most people will probably be more interested in. Given how many things could go wrong on another planet, Ingenuity’s continued smooth operation and results are nothing short of impressive, even for NASA’s scientists and engineers who planned the flight. The data gathered by Ingenuity will be used to improve not only its own future flights but also other rotorcraft that will be sent to the Red Planet.