Mars Ingenuity helicopter completes its toughest flight yet

Ingenuity, the helicopter that accompanied the Perseverance rover on its Mars mission, has undertaken its ninth and “most nerve-wracking” flight since it first took off on the red planet.

Although we don’t have the full details about what it accomplished, NASA confirmed in a tweet on July 5 that Ingenuity had completed the flight.

The tiny chopper was airborne for 166.4 seconds — 2.8 minutes — and flew at a speed of 5 meters (16 feet) per second, according to the tweet.

In a statement released before the flight, NASA revealed the helicopter would attempt to fly higher, faster and farther than ever before, flying 625 meters (2,051 feet) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remaining airborne for approximately 167 seconds.

This latest expedition took the helicopter away from Perseverance and over the Séítah region of Mars, an area characterized by sandy ripples that is very challenging terrain for rovers, according to the pre-flight statement.

The journey over unfriendly terrain was expected to challenge Ingenuity’s navigation algorithm in a fundamentally new way.

“This onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah,” according to Håvard Grip, chief pilot and Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars Helicopter Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The undulations could cause Ingenuity to oscillate, they said. Other potential challenges included abrupt changes in the slope paths that could cause problems in finding the landing site, because Ingenuity’s camera assumes the ground is flat.

“There is the distinct possibility that the cumulative effect of this is a large lateral error at the destination landing site, with delivery errors of many tens of feet (or meters),” Grip and Balaram said in the pre-flight statement. “It is possible that we will end up landing on a more treacherous, higher-relief surface than the relatively benign, sandy patches we have been able to pick so far.

“It is safe to say that it will be the most nerve-wracking flight since Flight 1.”

Ingenuity was expected to take color aerial images of the rocks and ripples it passed over during the flight, which would help the rover science team, according to NASA.

Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18 along with fellow traveler, Ingenuity, which completed the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19.

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