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Mars Ingenuity helicopter goes farther and faster for dramatic fourth flight

NASA's helicopter is turning into the Evel Knievel of Mars explorers.

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NASA's "high-risk, high-reward" Ingenuity helicopter is pouring on the rewards. It completed its fourth and most ambitious test flight across Mars on Friday. "Success," NASA JPL tweeted, saying Ingenuity went father and faster than ever before. 

NASA also shared a nifty image from one of the Perseverance rover's cameras showing the helicopter in flight in the distance.

Ingenuity had originally been scheduled for a fourth flight on Thursday, but a known glitch prevented the rotorcraft from switching into flight mode. The chopper remained safe and healthy and ready for the redo.

The plan for the latest test was to fly the helicopter to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters), collect images of the landscape below, hover and then head back to its takeoff spot. The flight path was set to take it 436 feet (133 meters) downrange and last 117 seconds.

It takes time to send the data back from Mars, but NASA is expecting to receive a bounty of photos snapped by the helicopter during the flight. This will help prove the rotorcraft's potential for use as a scout that can assist surface vehicles like rovers as they explore from the ground.

NASA said the plucky chopper already "has met or surpassed all of its technical objectives." That gave the helicopter team license to try the more daring fourth flight to push its capabilities in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

Ingenuity will soon move into a new demonstration phase if its planned fifth flight is also successful. The next phase will prioritize Perseverance and look at how Ingenuity can assist the rover's mission to study Mars and look for signs of ancient microbial life.

Perseverance is on the move and looking for interesting rocks to check out. Ingenuity may try to tag along. "The helicopter can use these opportunities to perform aerial observations of rover science targets, potential rover routes, and inaccessible features while also capturing stereo images for digital elevation maps," said NASA in a statement on Friday.

The rotorcraft no longer has to prove that powered, controlled flight is possible on another planet. It's done that and more. Every flight from here on out will just add to its aerial legacy.   

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