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NASA Mars helicopter pulls off 'nail-biter' ninth flight over rough terrain

Ingenuity's "nerve-wracking" flight pushed the little chopper to its limits.

Ingenuity saw its own shadow during its ninth flight.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

When NASA sent the Ingenuity helicopter to Mars, it was gamble. Now it's pushing its limits, flying fast and reaching new heights. NASA announced on Monday that Ingenuity successfully completed its ninth and "most challenging" flight, and we now have the details of what NASA called a "nail-biter."

NASA's goal was to go big with a daring "high-speed flight across unfriendly terrain" that would take the rotorcraft far from its robotic buddy, the Perseverance rover.

Instead of merely hopping ahead of the the rover, the helicopter took a shortcut over a sandy area, setting records for distance, air time and speed in the process. It hit a speed of 16 feet (5 meters) per second and flew for 166.4 seconds while snapping images of the landscape.

This map shows Ingenuity's previous flights across Mars along with the approximate path of the ninth flight over rough terrain.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

The terrain below presented some new challenges for the helicopter's navigation system. Ingenuity had to make sense of "high slopes and undulations" and its team was concerned the machine might accidentally land in a treacherous area. NASA described it as "the most nerve-wracking flight since Flight 1."

The helicopter's navigation system was optimized for flat ground. It looks down, assesses what it sees and uses that information to get where it's going. 

For the ninth flight, the chopper had to dip into a crater, a potentially dangerous move for a machine trained to make sense of flat terrain. To compensate, the Ingenuity team reduced its speed at that point and selected a large potential landing zone in case Ingenuity got a little lost along the way.  

Ingenuity landed in a good spot and NASA reported the team was jubilant on learning the chopper was alive and well.

Ingenuity will be sending back color images from the adventure, which will show how a flying machine can be a useful scout for a land-bound rover. "This flight was also explicitly designed to have science value by providing the first close view of major science targets that the rover will not reach for quite some time," NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.   

Ingenuity has already overcome a variety of potential obstacles, from a software glitch to an in-flight anomaly. While the flight was risky, it made sense for what was always considered a high-risk, high-reward technology experiment.

"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 -- traveling quickly across otherwise untraversable terrain while scouting for interesting science targets," NASA said. Consider it demonstrated.

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