NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter set a new record for the highest altitude it has flown at by flying 14 metres above the Martian surface on December 3, 2022. It has reached its previous record altitude of 12 metres during three flights.
Ingenuity is a small solar-powered rotorcraft that landed on the Martian surface on February 18, 2021, along with the Perseverance rover. When it took off on the Martian surface for the first time on April 19, 2022, it created history by conducting the first powered flight on an extraterrestrial planet.
The December 3 flight was Ingenuity’s first one since a flight on November 22 and the second flight after a major software update. Flight 34, which happened on November 22, was unremarkable in most ways. During the flight, Ingenuity flew about 5 metres in the air before landing in the same position.
This made it shorter than Ingenuity’s first flight, during which the helicopter flew about 5 metres horizontally. But despite the simple nature of the flight, it presented a major milestone for the rotorcraft according to NASA. It was the first one after a major software update that gave Ingenuity two important new capabilities—hazard avoidance during landing and the use of a digital elevation map to navigate.
During previous flights, NASA teams had to ensure that the Mars helicopter landed on “airfields” that were free of rocks or other obstacles. But this was proving difficult in the Jezero Crater, which is a very rocky location. The new update adds hazard avoidance that uses Ingenuity’s downward-pointed navigation camera to identify safe landing zones, allowing it to land in rockier terrain than before.
Another issue with Ingenuity’s navigation software was the fact that it assumed the vehicle was flying over flat terrain. Due to this flat-ground assumption, when the vehicle is flying over hilly terrain, the navigation system thinks it is veering towards one side. The navigation system would then actually veer the helicopter towards the opposite direction to counter this “error.”
Flight 34 served as a basic test for Ingenuity’s performance with the new update but Flight 35, which happened on December 3, will provide more data about its capabilities after the update.