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NASA's Ingenuity helicopter sets new speed record during third flight on Mars

Female engineer makes history with Mars mission
Female engineer makes history with Mars missi... 01:31

In its third-ever attempt at leaving the surface of Mars, NASA's tiny test helicopter traveled farther and faster than it ever has before — even in testing on Earth. The historic moment came just days after its second journey.   

The Ingenuity helicopter broke several records on Sunday morning, rising 16 feet into the air before flying about 164 feet, just over half the length of a football field, at a top speed of about 4.5 miles per hour — up from about 1.1 miles per hour during previous flights last week. 

"While that number may not seem like a lot, consider that we never moved laterally more than about two-pencil lengths when we flight-tested in the vacuum chamber here on Earth," Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars helicopter chief pilot at JPL, said ahead of the historic flight. He said the helicopter is finally able to "experience freedom in the sky." 

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NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA said the Ingenuity team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was "ecstatic to see the helicopter soaring out of view."

"Today's flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing," Dave Lavery, the project's program executive, said in a statement. "With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions."

The Perseverance rover, which landed on the red planet with Ingenuity in its belly in February, captured the flight on video using its MastCam-Z camera. Scientists are still waiting for more video segments to be beamed back to Earth to see the full extent of the helicopter's 80-second journey. 

Ingenuity has also been instructed by the team to capture even more photos itself, including from its color camera. So far, it appears to be exceeding expectations, outdoing the test flights it performed on Earth.

"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 chamber."

Its navigation camera captured an image of its shadow on the Martian surface during Sunday's flight. 

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This black-and-white image was taken by the navigation camera aboard NASA's Ingenuity helicopter during its third flight, on April 25, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

New images, also released Sunday, captured by the helicopter's color camera, show Ingenuity's perspective as it flies above Mars. NASA says the images demonstrate how an aerial aspect could be useful in future Mars missions

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This is the third color image taken by NASA's Ingenuity helicopter. It was snapped on the helicopter's second flight, on April 22, 2021, from an altitude of about 17 feet. Tracks made by NASA's Perseverance Mars rover can be seen as well. NASA/JPL-Caltech

There are a lot more things that can go wrong on Mars when it comes to tracking Ingenuity's movements. Dust can obscure the camera lens and interfere with functionality, and the camera needs to accurately track the ground while moving at a higher speed than it did on Earth. 

"When you're in the test chamber, you have an emergency land button right there and all these safety features," said Gerik Kubiak, a JPL software engineer. "We have done all we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly free without these features."

And it's not done making history yet. A fourth flight is scheduled for later this week. 

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