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NASA Ingenuity Helicopter, nailed to the ground Thursday by a pesky but understood software glitch, successfully completed its fourth flight in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars on Friday, sparking a new phase of extended science operations for the $ 80 million drone.

“Ingenuity successfully completed its fourth flight today, and we couldn’t be happier,” project manager MiMi Aung said in an online status report. “We have a lot of data to analyze. Ingenuity’s performance on Mars has been perfect. It’s an amazing time for our whole team!”

Data from the helicopter, retransmitted to Earth via the Perseverance rover and one of NASA’s Martian orbiters, confirmed that the 4-pound helicopter took off from the “Wright Brothers Field” in Jezero Crater at around 10:49 a.m. EDT (12:33 p.m. local time) on Mars).

A photo of the Perseverance Mars rover captured the Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Friday (far right) as it flew over 400 feet above sea level

It then climbed to an altitude of 16 feet, banked south, and flew some 436 feet round trip before settling to a touchdown one minute and 57 seconds after takeoff.

Along the way, the small drone captured 60 black and white shots of the ground below, as well as five color views, data that will be used to build a three-dimensional map of the terrain to help mission planners identify a new “aerodrome” for future use.

“Success,” tweeted the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Ingenuity was built, after data confirmed the takeoff. “#MarsHelicopter completed its 4th flight, going farther and faster than ever. It also took more photos while flying over the Martian surface. We expect these images to be released in a subsequent data downlink.”

Success 👏#MarsHelicopter completed its 4th flight, going further and faster than ever. He also took more photos while flying over the Martian surface. We would expect these images to descend in a subsequent data downlink, but @NASAPersevereHazcam took part of the flight.

– NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 30, 2021

NASA Chief Scientist Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted: “Amazing! Congratulations to the team on Ingenuity’s 4th flight!”

The 4-pound helicopter, added to the Perseverance rover mission as a technology demonstration, met all of its pre-flight goals in three near-perfect test flights earlier this month.

As a result, NASA officials decided to expand the drone’s mission to include at least an additional month of flight operations, putting the rotorcraft to work collecting scientific data. At the same time, Perseverance will shift from supporting helicopter operations to completing preparations for its own science mission.

“As Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it for the benefit of future aerial platforms while prioritizing and moving forward with the near-term science goals of the Perseverance rover team.” Zurbuchen said in a previous statement.

For the next flight, the fifth from the helicopter, “we will send Ingenuity on a one-way flight for transfer to the new airfield,” Aung said in a briefing Friday. “After his arrival, we will be working closely with (the Perseverance team) to identify new products and operational scenarios that we want to test (in the future). I can’t tell you how excited we are about this. new phase. “

Engineers initially held two test flights in reserve in case Ingenuity failed to meet its primary goals in the first three. But these no longer needed reserved spaces have been transformed into transition flights, bridging the gap between proof of concept and operational demonstrations of aerial exploration capabilities.

“We will now … work on operational products, such as aerial observation of specific scientific targets or examining characteristics of the context from places that are not accessible to rovers,” Aung said. “Another operational product that we will be looking at is the search for potential scientific observations, the search for a future rover crossing or the search for new airfields to which the helicopter can transfer.

“We can also look at stereo imagery, digital elevation maps. So, as we build these products, the lessons learned from this exercise will be of great benefit to future missions with aerial platforms. And as we pursue these operational products, we will also continue to promote ingenuity capability. “”

Ingenuity has captured the imagination of the world with its first flight on April 19 about a month after arriving on Mars with the Perseverance rover. The drone climbed to an altitude of about 10 feet, hovered briefly and then landed.

He stole a second time on April 22, climb to 16 feet and fly about seven feet to one side, then again. For his third flight on April 25, Ingenuity climbed back up to 16 feet and flew 164 feet down before returning to its starting point.

Last News Helicopter on Mars makes fourth successful flight

An earlier image of the Ingenuity helicopter resting on the surface of Mars after the release of the Perseverance rover. / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

“When Ingenuity’s landing stages landed after this third flight, we knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” said Bob Balaram, Engineer Chief Ingenuity at JPL, in an online status report. “We are now planning to extend our range, speed and duration to better understand performance.”

The team had originally planned to launch the helicopter on its fourth flight on Thursday, but data sent back to Earth showed that Ingenuity’s flight computer failed to enter flight mode as expected.

A similar issue arose on April 9 during a rotor spin test before the drone. first flight.

At the time, engineers were wondering whether to wipe out Ingenuity’s flight software and load a modified version from scratch or just hook up additional controls that would improve the odds of a successful transition to flight mode. .

They decided that the latter option was less risky, but said at the time that there was a possibility that the problem could happen again. Ingenuity then made three consecutive successful test flights ahead of Thursday’s scheduled flight when, again, it failed to enter flight mode.

The system was functioning normally on Friday. Balaram said the team may re-evaluate whether to replace Ingenuity’s flight software with a modified version to avoid such issues on the road.

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