NASA has announced that Ingenuity, its small Martian helicopter, successfully passed its ninth and most challenging flight thus far, marking a new milestone for the surprisingly capable vehicle. Unlike past flights, NASA used the most recent flight to pit Ingenuity against “challenging terrain,” not to mention the ample distance traveled.
It’s important to remember that Ingenuity was designed merely as a technology demonstration — that is, to prove that it’s possible to fly a helicopter on the Red Planet. As with the rovers that made their way to Mars, Ingenuity managed to outlive its basic purpose to achieve additional milestones.
Ingenuity obviously flies through the air, but the terrain below it matters. This is because of how NASA’s team designed the navigation system, which was given an algorithm that would understand the terrain it perceived as flat. That makes flights over less-than-flat terrain tricky for the helicopter, which is faced with errors when tasked with flying over land it wasn’t programmed to understand.
Despite the nature of its navigation system, NASA decided to challenge Ingenuity beyond past flights by having it fly over the Séítah region, which is rough enough that even the Perseverance rover would struggle to handle it. Because the rover isn’t able to help scientists understand this region, NASA decided to use this Ingenuity flight to get their first close-up photos of “major science targets” in the region.
In addition to successfully flying over this rough area, Ingenuity broke its previous flight speeds and duration. With the flight successfully completed earlier this week, NASA says it expects to receive color images captured by Ingenuity sometime next week.