Mars helicopter to push the limits on its fourth flight


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The 4-pound chopper will attempt its fourth flight on the red planet on Thursday at 10:12 a.m. ET, or 12:30 p.m. local Mars time. Data will begin streaming back to the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California at 1:21 p.m. ET.

“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of powered, controlled flight at the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, in a statement.

“Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration, which means it has a limited time to meet objectives set by its mission team.

The data from its experimental flights on Mars this month could inform the design of other rotorcraft to fly on Mars and other planets that can act as scouts for rovers and astronauts alike.

Spot the Perseverance rover in this new Mars helicopter photo

The three main objectives for Ingenuity involved flying through the thin Martian atmosphere; demonstrating powered, controlled flight on another planet; and pushing the capabilities Ingenuity showed during testing on Earth. All of those targets have been met over the course of the helicopter’s three flights thus far.

“When Ingenuity’s landing legs touched down after that third flight, we knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” said J. “Bob” Balaram, Ingenuity chief engineer at JPL, in a statement. “Now we plan to extend our range, speed, and duration to gain further performance insight.”

According to the fourth flight plan, Ingenuity will ascend to its usual altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and then fly south for 276 feet (84 meters). It will pass over rocks, small impact craters and sand ripples and use its black-and-white navigation camera to image this intriguing landscape every 4 feet (1.2 meters).

Ingenuity will travel a total of 436 feet (133 meters) downrange from its “helipad” in Wright Brothers Field, stop for a hover and collect images with its color camera before heading back to its landing site.

Mars helicopter achieves fastest, farthest flight yet

“To achieve the distance necessary for this scouting flight, we’re going to break our own Mars records set during flight three,” said Johnny Lam, backup pilot for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at JPL, in a statement. “We’re upping the time airborne from 80 seconds to 117, increasing our max airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than doubling our total range.”

The Perseverance rover also will be poised to capture images and video of Ingenuity’s flight.

Once data and images are returned from the fourth flight, the mission team will determine their plan for the helicopter’s fifth outing. Those plans for the remaining flight campaign will be discussed during a virtual briefing hosted by NASA on Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

“We have been kicking around several options regarding what a flight five could look like,” Balaram said. “But ask me about what they entail after a successful flight four. The team remains committed to building our flight experience one step at a time.”

Check CNN.com for updates on the results of this historic fourth flight mission.

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