NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, flew faster and farther Sunday than in any tests it went through on Earth, officials said.
The helicopter took off at 4:31 a.m. PDT -- or 12:33 p.m. local Mars time -- rising 16 feet, the same altitude as its second flight on Thursday. Then it zipped downrange 164 feet, reaching a top speed of 6.6 feet per second.
Ingenuity's team in Pasadena was digging through a trove of information gathered during the 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 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”
The Ingenuity team has been pushing the helicopter's limits by adding instructions to capture more photos of its own -- including from a color camera, which captured its first images during the second flight.
The helicopter's black-and-white navigation camera, meanwhile, tracks surface features below, and Sunday's 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 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 chamber.”
The Ingenuity team is planning its fourth flight a few days from now.