On Monday, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made its ninth and most ambitious flight yet.
This time, the space agency said, the tiny flier took to the skies for 166.4 seconds and reached a maximum speed of 5 m/s. This is equivalent to 10 mph, or a brisk run. During this flight, Ingenuity covered about 625 meters.
A little more than two months have passed since Ingenuity‘s first flight, on April 19 of this year. During that initial test, the helicopter hovered to about 3 meters above the ground before landing again. Since then, the engineering team behind the helicopter has pushed the vehicle higher, farther, and faster across the surface of Mars.
In flying farther and farther, Ingenuity is showing off some of the benefits of using powered flight to explore other worlds. The distance Ingenuity traveled during this single flight, NASA engineer Keri Bean noted, is about the same distance that the NASA’s Spirit rover traveled during the entirety of its prime mission on the red planet.
For Monday’s flight, NASA flew from the Perseverance rover and took a shortcut to reconnoiter the Séítah region, which interests scientists but is likely impassable to the rover due to its sandy ripples. In making this flight, the NASA Science Mission Directorate acknowledged it was taking a risk and might lose the helicopter as it was pushing the vehicle and its software past “safe” limits.
“We believe Ingenuity is ready for the challenge, based on the resilience and robustness demonstrated in our flights so far,” NASA said. “Second, this high-risk, high-reward attempt fits perfectly within the goals of our current operational demonstration phase. A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle, and only an aerial vehicle, can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration.”
That risk seems to have paid off handsomely. Not only does NASA have Ingenuity back safe and sound, scientists will be able to study images of a region they otherwise would have missed.