NASA’s Mars helicopter enters new phase

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After exceeding all expectations with its initial four test flights, the first ever by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, NASA’s tiny Mars robot helicopter Ingenuity is ready for graduation.

The US space agency announced on Friday that Ingenuity is shifting from a pure proof-of-concept, technology demonstration mode to a more ambitious mission gauging how aerial scouting and other functions might benefit future scientific exploration of the Red Planet.

Ingenuity’s 30-day planned project extension was outlined during a briefing from its mission control centre at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, where the twin-rotor aircraft was designed and built.

The new “operational demonstration” phase of the 4-pound, solar-powered chopper began with its fourth takeoff on a nearly two-minute flight on Friday morning. Data returned from Ingenuity later in the day showed that it covered a round-trip distance of 872 feet — roughly the length of three American football fields — at a speed of almost 8 miles per hour.

The helicopter flew at height of about 16 feet, considered ideal for the ground-surveillance work it was performing while aloft and matching the altitude of its second and third flights.

The latest outing topped the speed and distance records set on Sunday by flight No. 3, which went farther and faster than the test flights conducted on Earth.

By comparison, Ingenuity’s very first 39-second flight on Mars on April 19 climbed just 10 feet high, hovered in place briefly and descended straight back down for landing.

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