Mars helicopter Ingenuity snaps epic photo of rover tracks

NASA's history-making Mars helicopter Ingenuity will make its third Red Planet flight this weekend if all goes according to plan. The Ingenuity team is targeting early Sunday morning (April 25) for sortie number three. The flight plan calls for Ingenuity to get about 16.5 feet (5 meters) above the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater, travel a total of 330 feet (100 m), and stay aloft for 80 seconds, chief pilot HÃ¥vard Grip of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in a blog post today (April 23). 

Grip did not give an estimated liftoff time but did say that data and photos are expected to starting coming down to Earth around 10:16 a.m. EDT (1416 GMT) on Sunday.

Ingenuity's first two flights were not so involved. On its groundbreaking first flight, which occurred on Monday (April 19), Ingenuity went straight up and down, attained a maximum altitude of about 10 feet (3 m), and stayed aloft for 39.1 seconds. On Thursday (April 22), the solar-powered helicopter remained airborne for nearly 52 seconds, got more than 16.5 feet (5 m) high, and moved laterally a total of 13 feet (4 m).

During that second flight, Ingenuity snapped a photo of Jezero's floor and the tracks made by its much larger partner, NASA's Perseverance rover. It's the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft, NASA officials wrote in a caption for the newly unveiled photo, which Grip featured in his blog post today. (Ingenuity took photos during its first flight as well, but apparently only with its black-and-white navigation camera.)

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration designed to show that aerial vehicles can operate on Mars. A successful flight campaign could open the Red Planet's skies to extensive exploration.

The helicopter landed with Perseverance on Feb. 18 and deployed from the rover on April 3 to prep for its month-long flight campaign, which ends in early May. The Ingenuity team aims to make a total of five flights during that span, with each one more ambitious than the last.

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