Ingenuity Mars Copter
Flies Faster, Farther on Third Flight
April 26, 2021
The craft’s April 25 flight was
conducted at speeds and distances beyond what had ever been
previously demonstrated, even in testing on Earth.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter continues to set records,
flying faster and farther on Sunday, April 25, 2021 than in any
tests it went through on Earth. The helicopter took off at 4:31
a.m. EDT (1:31 a.m. PDT), or 12:33 p.m. local Mars time, rising
16 feet (5 meters) – the same altitude as its second flight.
Then it zipped downrange 164 feet (50 meters), just over half
the length of a football field, reaching a top speed of 6.6 feet
per second (2 meters per second).
After data came back from Mars starting at 10:16 a.m. EDT (7:16
a.m. PDT), Ingenuity’s team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
in Southern California was ecstatic to see the helicopter
soaring out of view. They’re already digging through a trove of
information gathered during this third flight that will inform
not just additional Ingenuity flights but possible Mars
rotorcraft in the future.
“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 at NASA Headquarters in
Washington. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical
capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial
dimension to future Mars missions.”
The Mastcam-Z imager aboard
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, which is parked at “Van Zyl
Overlook” and serving as a communications base station, captured
video of Ingenuity. In the days ahead, segments of that video
will be sent back to Earth showing most of the helicopter’s
80-second journey across its flight zone.
The Ingenuity team has been pushing the helicopter’s limits by
adding instructions to capture more photos of its own –
including from the color camera, which captured its first images
on Flight Two. As with everything else about these flights, the
additional steps are meant to provide insights that could be
used by future aerial missions.
The helicopter’s black-and-white navigation camera, meanwhile,
tracks surface features below, 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.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the algorithm for the camera
running over a long distance,” said MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s
project manager at JPL. “You can’t do this inside a test
Vacuum chambers at JPL are filled with wispy air, primarily
carbon dioxide, to simulate the thin Martian atmosphere; they
don’t have room for even a tiny helicopter to move more than
about 1.6 feet (half a meter) in any direction. That posed a
challenge: Would the camera track the ground as designed while
moving at higher speed on the Red Planet?
Lots of things have to go just right for the camera to do that,
said Gerik Kubiak, a JPL software engineer. Aside from focusing
on the algorithm that tracks surface features, the team needs
the correct image exposures: Dust can obscure the images and
interfere with camera performance. And the software must perform
you’re in the test chamber, you have an emergency land button
right there and all these safety features,” Kubiak said. “We
have done all we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly free without
With this third flight in the history books, the Ingenuity Mars
Helicopter team is looking ahead to planning its fourth flight
in a few days’ time.
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also
manages this technology demonstration project for NASA
Headquarters. It is supported by NASA’s Science Mission
Directorate, Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, and Space
Technology Mission Directorate. NASA’s Ames Research Center and
Langley Research Center provided significant flight performance
analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s
development. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, Snapdragon, and
SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle
components. The Mars Helicopter Delivery System was designed and
manufactured by Lockheed Space Systems, Denver.