Short but significant: NASA’s improved Ingenuity helicopter takes shortest flight on Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, which has set multiple records to date, took the shortest flight in the history of Martian aviation. The 1.8 kg helicopter was airborne for 18 seconds and managed to hop a little over 16 feet (5 meters) in what was its 34th flight since making it to Mars with the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity was attached to the belly of Perseverance which touched down in the Jezero crater on February 18, 2021. 

The helicopter, designed for just five flights, was meant to demonstrate that a powered flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere but it has lasted much longer than expected. 

Ingenuity gets software update

The latest flight was the first after Ingenuity underwent a software update. According to NASA, the update provides Ingenuity with two major new capabilities which are hazard avoidance when landing and the use of digital elevation maps to help navigate. The new hazard avoidance feature would prove immensely beneficial considering that Ingenuity, which was designed to operate on Mars in flat, smooth terrain is enduring a challenging terrain in the Jezero crater. 

Besides, the helicopter’s pilots on Earth would no longer have to struggle to find airfields free of any rocks or other obstacles as Ingenuity’s downward-facing navigation camera can now locate the safest landing site. “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,” the mission team wrote in an official blog. 

“Flight 34 may not seem like much, but it was Ingenuity’s first with this software update. The team will use results from this simple flight to start testing these new capabilities, ensuring that everything works as expected on the surface of Mars,” the team further said. Ingenuity, which measures about 19 inches high, has acted as a scout for the Perseverance rover which is currently exploring an area named the Lori Pass which has sandstone rocks that formed by water that once flowed on Mars. 

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