NASA Ingenuity Helicopter Sets Record For Shortest Flight on Mars

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NASA Ingenuity Helicopter Sets Record For Shortest Flight on Mars
Photo Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars chopper recently created an unusual record by taking the shortest flight in Martian aviation history. However, the space agency believes it was a “short but significant” flight that lasted just 18 seconds. The previous record for the shortest flight was 31 seconds, also set by Ingenuity during its maiden flight in the Martian atmosphere.

 

Despite the short flight, the Ingenuity teams managed to test two new and important capabilities of the helicopter. First was hazard avoidance while landing, and second was the use of digital elevation maps.

Finding More Potential Landing Sites

“Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration and designed to operate on Mars in flat, smooth terrain,” said Joshua Anderson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Anderson explained that as the helicopter continued exploring the Jezero Crater along with NASA’s Perseverance rover, both vehicles came across increasingly challenging terrain, which was beyond what the team on Earth had expected.

The new hazard-avoidance software allows the chopper to leverage its downward-facing navigation camera to pick the safest spot for landing. It enables it to safely land in a rockier terrain, which means there can be more potential sites for landing the small chopper.

“In prior flights, Ingenuity’s pilots have needed to find airfields free of any rocks or other obstacles that could potentially damage the vehicle when landing,” Anderson added. “Jezero Crater is a rocky place, so safe airfields have been tough to find.”

Navigating Through Uneven Martian Terrain

The digital elevation maps will allow the helicopter to filter an issue that causes hilly terrain to cause veering problems for the chopper as its navigation system is designed only for flat surfaces.

“This new software update corrects this flat-ground assumption by using digital elevation maps of Jezero Crater to help the navigation software distinguish between changes in terrain and vehicle movement,” Anderson explained. “This increases Ingenuity’s accuracy, allowing the pilots to target smaller airfields going forward.”

The team will study the data gathered during Ingenuity’s short flight to start more testing of the new capabilities to determine if they are working as intended. It was Ingenuity’s 34th flight to date. Its longest flight lasted for 169.5 seconds during a mission in August last year.

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