NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity broke new ground during its latest Red Planet flight, as video of the sortie shows.
Ingenuity took off early Sunday morning (April 25) on its third and most ambitious Martian mission yet. The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper traveled a total of 330 feet (100 meters) laterally, stayed aloft for 80 seconds and reached a maximum speed of about 4.5 mph (7.2 kph), smashing the marks set on its previous two flights.
"Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing," Dave Lavery, the Ingenuity program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement Sunday. "With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions."
NASA's Perseverance rover watched the action from about 210 feet (64 m) away on Sunday morning, capturing high-resolution video with its powerful Mastcam-Z camera system as it did on the previous flights. Ingenuity stayed in frame during those first two sorties, but it leaves the scene in the new footage, staying off-camera for about 24 seconds as it explores Wright Brothers Field, the name team members gave to its designated flying zone.
Perseverance and Ingenuity landed together on the floor of Jezero Crater on Feb. 18. The technology-demonstrating rotorcraft deployed from the rover's belly on April 3, starting the clock on Ingenuity's month-long flight campaign.
That campaign will include two more flights, if all goes according to plan. And flight number three could be just a warm-up act for what's to come: Ingenuity team members have said they intend to really push the helicopter's limits on the final two hops.
The #MarsHelicopter is really “spreading its wings” now – even pushing beyond my camera's field of view. Watch my view of Flight #3, as Ingenuity takes off on a long run (164 ft/50 m) down its flight zone and back. https://t.co/ESQu9PIL9S pic.twitter.com/PzEoD3XoHAApril 25, 2021
Perseverance is a crucial part of this work, which is designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars. In addition to serving as mission photographer, the car-sized rover is a relay station for Ingenuity, transmitting all communications to and from the little chopper.
But Perseverance needs to start focusing on its own mission soon, which is why Ingenuity gets just one month to fly on Mars. The rover has two main tasks: hunting for signs of ancient Mars life on Jezero's floor, and collecting and caching several dozen samples. A joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign will haul that pristine Red Planet material to Earth, perhaps as early as 2031.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.