Not Everyone Is Getting Great Service With Starlink

This long-exposure image shows a trail of a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay.

This long-exposure image shows a trail of a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay.
Photo: Mariana Suarez/AFP (Getty Images)

New Starlink data out today shows where in the U.S. Elon Musk’s ambitious satellite internet service is exceeding expectations—and where it’s falling short.

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According to Ookla, the company behind a Speedtest app and website that lets anyone test the speed of their broadband and mobile connections, Starlink speeds vary greatly depending on where you live.

Starlink is currently available throughout the U.S. and Canada, and has reportedly racked up more than 500,000 preorders. (I placed a preorder a few months ago, but I have yet to receive the equipment.) But users living in certain places within those two countries will get a better connection than others. Broadly, Ookla says median Starlink download speeds in the U.S. ranged from 40.36 Mbps in Columbia County, Ore. to 93.09 Mbps in Shasta County, Calif., during the first quarter of the year.

These may seem like OK speeds, but while in some places they were a vast improvement over fixed broadband providers (545.6% faster in Tehama County, Calif., for instance), others saw a disappointing drop (67.9% slower in Clay County, Mo.).

Looking at a map Ookla provided of Starlink speeds compared to fixed broadband speeds in the U.S., users living in the northern parts of California, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, the border between Oregon and Washington, and a small pocket in the north of Vermont saw the greatest increase in download speeds. But a smattering of pockets across the same states and in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan saw a decrease in download speeds compared to fixed broadband in the area.

When you overlay Ookla’s map with a regular map of the U.S., the areas with worse performance than fixed broadband appear to be clustered around major cities and large metropolitan areas. It’s not surprising that users in or around Los Angeles, for instance, would see slower speeds compared to other ISPs in those areas. A bad satellite connection can happen for a lot of different reasons, but the perhaps the biggest factor is obstructions. Buildings, trees, bad weather—the list goes on. The ideal use case for Starlink and other satellite internet providers is to provide a fast internet connection in the countryside, with wide open spaces for miles. That doesn’t always exist in urban and suburban areas.

A place like Tehama County, Calif., where the largest city is Red Bluff (with just over 14,000 people), is an ideal place for Starlink.

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Customers in both the U.S. and Canada experienced astronomically higher latency compared to fixed broadband customers in the same areas, up to 486% higher in the U.S. and up to 369% in Canada. Latency in the U.S. ranged from a low of 31ms in Kittitas County, Wash., up to 88ms in Otsego County, Mich. Median latency from all other fixed broadband ISPs combined were between 8ms and 47ms.

Starlink is still in its early beta days, but it seems like a viable solution for many rural residents who currently lack reliable access to the internet. As SpaceX sends up more satellites into orbit and increases Starlink’s network capacity, it should be able to offer the same speeds to more people living in rural areas.

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Blue Origin Announces Launch Date for First Crewed Flight of New Shepard

The interior of the New Shepard crew capsule.

The interior of the New Shepard crew capsule.
Image: Blue Origin

After years of delays, Blue Origin says it’s finally ready for a crewed launch of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the company is aiming for launch in July, and an auction will be held to choose a member of the crew.

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On April 14, Blue Origin successfully performed a suborbital test along with an astronaut dress rehearsal of an uncrewed New Shepard rocket. I had an inkling at the time that this would be the final uncrewed test flight, and it appears my suspicions were correct. Blue Origin has now penciled in July 20 as the date for the first crewed launch of New Shepard.

Few details were given, such as the composition of the inaugural crew, but we do know this: One member of the crew will be the winner of an online auction. (Blue Origin has not immediately responded to a request for further details about the launch.)

As of today, anyone with an interest in joining the flight can place a bid at the Blue Origin website. I couldn’t resist, so I placed a modest bid of $50, which is clearly far from the maximum bid allowed by “non-verified” bidders. Space, it’s fair to say, will remain far out of reach for your humble science reporter for the foreseeable future.

A confirmation email I received during the bidding process.

A confirmation email I received during the bidding process.
Image: George Dvorsky

And by “space” we’re actually referring to a region slightly beyond the Karman Line, as the 60-foot-tall (18.3-meter-tall) New Shepard rocket will not actually go into Earth orbit. Instead, the vehicle will ascend to a height exceeding 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically qualifies as being in space. Total time in space will amount to around 11 minutes, followed by a parachute-assisted landing of the New Shepard crew capsule on the surface. The reusable main stage will perform a vertical landing at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Van Horn, Texas.

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Proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Club for the Future, a Blue Origin foundation with the stated goal of inspiring “future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.” That may be so, but the company is clearly using the auction to generate hype.

Blue Origin has not yet disclosed the price of each seat for future flights, but estimates range from $50,000 to $250,000—and possibly even as high as $500,000. The NS-15 crew capsule can accommodate up to six passengers. The company was hoping to fly people back in 2019, but the testing stage took longer than expected.

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More: Musk-Bezos feud intensifies: Blue Origin protests NASA choice of SpaceX lunar lander.

Watch Live as SpaceX Attempts to Launch Its Upgraded Starship Prototype Rocket [Update: It Landed!]

Starship prototype SN10 during its high-altitude flight test on March 3, 2021.

Starship prototype SN10 during its high-altitude flight test on March 3, 2021.
Image: SpaceX

On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX will attempt a high altitude test of SN15—the first of the next generation of Starship prototypes. You can watch the launch live right here.

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Update: 6:41 p.m. EDT: Elon Musk tweets:

Update: 6:38 p.m. EDT: Starship prototype SN15 managed to stick the landing. As the case with SN10, a fire broke out at the base shortly afterwards, but this time a fire suppression system managed to douse the flames, in a process that took about 10 minutes. And unlike SN10, SN15 appeared to make a very gentle landing. By all appearances, this appears to be a major success for SpaceX and the Starship program.

Starship SN15 after landing, and prior to the flames being doused.

Starship SN15 after landing, and prior to the flames being doused.
Image: SpaceX

Update: 6:05 p.m. EDT: Launch of SN15 should happen shortly after 6:20 p.m. EDT. A live feed of the launch from SpaceX is now available below.

Update: 5:15 p.m. EDT: Tank farm activity has begun, which means launch could be as few as 35 minutes away, but realistically between 5:45 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. EDT. Expect things to move quickly from here.

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Update: 4:56 p.m. EDT: Yay, the pad has been cleared yet again. At this point, I’m guesstimating a launch between 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. EDT (launch window closes sharply at 9:00 p.m. EDT).

Update: 4:20 p.m. EDT: SpaceX teams are returning to the launch pad, for reasons unknown—hopefully for something minor. Accordingly, the checklist is being walk-backed. The launch appears to be going ahead as planned, though possibly later than my estimate from earlier. The window closes today at 9:00 p.m. EDT.

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Update: 3:55 p.m. EDT: The checklist towards launch continues to get shorter, and final checkouts are currently taking place. If I were to guess, launch could happen between 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. EDT. Again, we’ll update once we learn more.

Original post follows:

The window for Tuesday’s launch opened at 1:00 p.m. EDT (or 12:00 p.m. CDT, which is local time), and it will close at 9:00 p.m. EDT (8:00 p.m. CDT). We don’t know the exact time for the high-altitude hop and attempting landing, but we’ll update this post once we learn more. You can watch the launch at any of the live feeds provided below.

There’s added pressure on the Starship tests given that NASA has asked SpaceX to build a lunar lander for the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon. Well, to be fair, the contract is now on hold as both Blue Origin and Dynetics have formally protested NASA’s decision, requiring the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review.

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According to the latest plan, a future version of Starship will be sent to lunar orbit, where it will await rendezvous with an Orion capsule carrying the Artemis astronauts. Once the astronauts are on board, the rocket will make a vertical landing on the Moon, and then return the team back to Orion once they complete their explorations on the lunar surface.

As is the pattern for high-altitude tests, the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) rocket won’t go into space, instead reaching a maximum height of around 6 miles (10 kilometers). The Raptor engines will shut down in sequence, followed by an aerodynamic descent. The SN15 prototype will then attempt a vertical landing at SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas. To date, no Starship prototype has survived the landing, though SN10 came very close (it exploded several minutes after an awkward landing).

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Should a launch occur, it will mark the fifth high-altitude test of a Starship prototype, the previous being SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11. SpaceX has decided to skip ahead a little bit and jump right into SN15. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk declared in a late March tweet that the new version features “hundreds of design improvements across structures” involving flight software and the Raptor engine.

After this latest generation of Starship rockets gets tested, SpaceX will then turn to the SN20+ series, which will be capable of going into orbit, but these vehicles “will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact,” added Musk.

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SpaceX plans to use Starship as a vehicle to transport cargo and passengers to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. The rocket is meant to work either as an independent rocket or as the second stage of a reusable launch system.

More: NASA selects SpaceX to build upcoming lunar lander.

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The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Experiment Is About to Get More Interesting

Ingenuity airborne (right) during its fourth flight on April 30, 2021.

Ingenuity airborne (right) during its fourth flight on April 30, 2021.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

It’s not wrong to want Ingenuity to crash. The Mars helicopter getting into a dramatic accident would mean that the NASA team pushed the craft to its limits—that there’s finally a ceiling on the accomplishments of the astonishingly successful chopper. So far, Ingenuity has completed four of its five scheduled test flights on Mars, and it now has a new mission for the month ahead.

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Assuming a successful fifth flight, Ingenuity will embark on an arguably more experimental phase of aerial scouting and other functions, exploring how else future rotorcraft could carry out human objectives on Mars. The new set of challenges means the nature of the Ingenuity mission has evolved from a simple demonstration that flight is possible on Mars.

“We gauge as we go,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, of Ingenuity’s expected lifespan in a NASA press conference held last week. “Ingenuity was built and tested for 30 days of operation. We do expect some finite life, so it really will be a race between how long these parts surprise us in surviving and, also, in doing these operational scenarios we’ll definitely be pushing the limits in Ingenuity.”

Ingenuity’s first flight, on April 19, 2021.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The extra month of experimentation is good news for the helicopter’s team, which had a 30-day window to complete the initial five flights. It looks set to complete those flights with days to spare, and with the Perseverance rover team being ahead of schedule on their system checks, it’s given the helicopter team some extra time to play around. A status update on Ingenuity’s performance in the air, published late last week by the helicopter’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, revealed that the craft has passed its inaugural test of flying on Mars with, well, flying colors.

According to a NASA release, the sorts of tasks Ingenuity could undertake in the next month are much more ambitious. As Perseverance sets out on its main mission—scouting out signs of fossil life in a dried-up river delta—the helicopter may accompany it, spotting sites of interest from above or eyeballing possible routes for the rover. It can also capture stereo images that will help create elevation maps of the area. The helicopter can be about two-thirds of a mile away from Perseverance and still communicate with it, according to Aung.

Obviously, it would be great if Ingenuity keeps chugging along, defying all predictions about its survival. But at the same time, it has already blown us away with its achievements. All data we get going forward is pretty much bonus.

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“There are lots of ideas about how this might end and what the final flight might be,” said Jennifer Trosper, a deputy project manager on the rover team, during the press conference last week. “As we go through it, our objective is to evaluate every month and see how it’s going, and then determine what the next steps are.”

So no, the NASA team is not hell-bent on killing the ‘copter. But the time for short, conservative flights is over, and we’re excited to see what’s next.

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More: See footage of Ingenuity’s remarkable rise and successful landing

These Are the First Color Aerial Photos of the Surface of Mars, Courtesy of Ingenuity

This is the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft. The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.

This is the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft. The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It goes without saying that NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has delighted the world in recent weeks, and it’s not done yet. NASA has released the first color aerial photos of the surface of Mars taken by Ingenuity in its successful second test flight earlier this week. They are quite a sight, although I must admit the first thing I think of when I see them is, “Oh look, the Perseverance rover passed by here.”

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In recent days, NASA published three aerial photos taken by Ingenuity. These aren’t the first photos taken by the rover. It has previously sent back images of its shadows taken with its downward-facing navigation camera. And let’s not forget its watchful and proud surrogate parent, the Perseverance rover, which snaps magnificent photos of the helicopter in action. However, this latest set of images is special because they’re the first color photos of Mars taken by an aerial vehicle while it’s in the air.

Ingenuity’s First Aerial Color Image of Mars

At the time of this image, Ingenuity was 17 feet (5.2 meters) above the surface and pitching (moving the camera’s field of view upward) so the helicopter could begin its 7-foot (2-meter) translation to the west.

At the time of this image, Ingenuity was 17 feet (5.2 meters) above the surface and pitching (moving the camera’s field of view upward) so the helicopter could begin its 7-foot (2-meter) translation to the west.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the first color image taken by Ingenuity, which is equipped with a high-resolution color camera that contains a 4208 x 3120-pixel sensor, on its April 22 test flight. According to NASA, Ingenuity was 17 feet (5.2 meters) above the surface. It was also moving its field of view upward as it prepared to move sideways for its 51.9-second flight.

“The image, as well as the inset showing a closeup of a portion of the tracks [of] the Perseverance Mars rover and Mars surface features, demonstrates the utility of scouting Martian terrain from an aerial perspective,” NASA explained in the photo’s description.

Speaking of Perseverance, you can check out the six-wheeled rover’s tracks in the winding parallel discolorations on the surface. Apparently, Perseverance itself isn’t too far away, but rather top center and unfortunately out of frame.

“Wright Brothers Field,” which is what NASA has named Ingenuity’s official launch zone, is in the vicinity of the helicopter’s shadow at the bottom center, the space agency said, and its point of takeoff is just below the image. Meanwhile, the black objects on the sides of the photo are Ingenuity’s landing pads. And in case this photo couldn’t get any better, you can see a small part of the horizon on the upper left and right corners.

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Ingenuity’s Second Aerial Color Image of Mars

This is the second color image taken by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.

This is the second color image taken by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Besides stating that this photo was also taken at an altitude of 17 feet (5.2 meters), NASA didn’t have much to say. Nonetheless, the space agency noted that you could see tracks made by Perseverance here as well.

Ingenuity’s Third Aerial Color Image of Mars 

This is the third color image taken by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.

This is the third color image taken by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA was short on words for this photo, too, but helpfully reminded us that Perseverance’s tracks can be seen in this case if you’re looking. (I was). I see the tracks at the bottom of the photo, but the rest of the picture is a lot more captivating to me. Oh, the mystery of the Martian surface!

In a news update published on Sunday after Ingenuity’s third successful test flight, NASA stated that the helicopter team had instructed Ingenuity to take more photos, including from its color camera. The space agency affirmed that taking additional photos will provide insights that could be used by future aerial missions. Ingenuity is expected to carry out its fourth test flight in the upcoming days.

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Ingenuity Flies Further and Faster in Third Flight on Mars, Going Beyond All Tests Conducted on Earth

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Sunday, Ingenuity demonstrated once again that it was the little Mars helicopter that could. NASA reported that Ingenuity had successfully completed its third test flight earlier in the day, flying further and faster than it ever had in tests conducted on Earth.

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Ingenuity carried out its third flight at 1:31 a.m. ET, although NASA began receiving the data at 10:16 a.m. ET. The helicopter rose 16 feet (5 meters), which is the same altitude as its second test flight, and flew 164 feet (50 meters) downrange. Ingenuity’s flight lasted 80 seconds, the space agency said, during which it managed to reach a top speed of 6.6 feet per second (2 meters per second).

On Friday, Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update that the helicopter team’s plan since day one has been to prepare, fly, analyze the data, and then “plan for an even bolder test in the next flight.”

When you compare today’s flight to Ingenuity’s second flight on Thursday, you can definitely see Grip wasn’t kidding. Only a few days ago, Ingenuity traveled seven feet (two meters) to the east and back on a 51.9-second flight. Fast forward a few days and Ingenuity’s traveled almost half the length of a football field in 80 seconds.

“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” Dave Lavery, the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at NASA headquarters, said in a news statement published by the space agency on Sunday. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”

The helicopter’s third test flight also tested its ability to process images taken by its black-and-white navigation camera, a device that tracks the planet’s surface features below Ingenuity. Ingenuity’s flight computer “utilizes the same resources as the cameras.” This is very important given that the flight computer is what flies the helicopter autonomously after receiving instructions from NASA hours beforehand.

Ingenuity’s camera takes more images the greater the distance, NASA explained. However, if the helicopter flies too fast, its flight algorithm can’t track surface features. The space agency had only tested Ingenuity in small vacuum chambers on Earth, where it could only move about 1.6 feet (half a meter) in any direction. To replicate the Martian atmosphere, which is only 1% as thick as Earth’s, the chambers are filled with wispy air, mainly carbon dioxide.

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Given the speed, range, and altitude planned for the third test flight, NASA was unsure whether Ingenuity’s camera would track the ground as designed while it was moving faster.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the algorithm for the camera running over a long distance,” MiMi Sung, Ingenuity’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the news release. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber.”

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Based on the successful flight, it would seem so, but we’ve asked NASA for clarification on whether the camera worked as expected.

Not only that, but the Ingenuity team also pushed the helicopter’s limits by instructing it to take more photos on its own, including with its color camera. NASA recently released the first aerial color images taken by Ingenuity on its second flight. You can even see tracks made by the Perseverance rover, which is essentially serving as Ingenuity’s proud and watchful parent as it zooms around the Martian surface.

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The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s little helicopter is currently carrying out a 30-Martian-day, or 31-Earth-day, technology demonstration that aims to test rotorcraft flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere. It will attempt up to five test flights within that window. The space agency said the Ingenuity team is planning the helicopter’s fourth flight, which will take place in a few days.

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In Third Mars Flight, Ingenuity Goes Beyond All Tests Done on Earth

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter can be seen hovering during its third flight on April 25, 2021, as seen by the left Navigation Camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Sunday, Ingenuity demonstrated once again that it was the little Mars helicopter that could. NASA reported that Ingenuity had successfully completed its third test flight earlier in the day, flying farther and faster than it ever had in tests conducted on Earth.

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Ingenuity carried out its third flight at 1:31 a.m. ET, although NASA began receiving the data at 10:16 a.m. ET. The helicopter rose 16 feet (5 meters), which is the same altitude as its second test flight, and flew 164 feet (50 meters) downrange. Ingenuity’s flight lasted 80 seconds, the space agency said, during which it managed to reach a top speed of 6.6 feet per second (2 meters per second).

On Friday, Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update that the helicopter team’s plan since day one has been to prepare, fly, analyze the data, and then “plan for an even bolder test in the next flight.”

When you compare today’s flight to Ingenuity’s second flight on Thursday, you can definitely see Grip wasn’t kidding. Only a few days ago, Ingenuity traveled seven feet (two meters) to the east and back on a 51.9-second flight. Fast forward a few days and Ingenuity’s traveled almost half the length of a football field in 80 seconds.

“Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing,” Dave Lavery, the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at NASA headquarters, said in a news statement published by the space agency on Sunday. “With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.”

The helicopter’s third test flight also tested its ability to process images taken by its black-and-white navigation camera, a device that tracks the planet’s surface features below Ingenuity. Ingenuity’s flight computer “utilizes the same resources as the cameras.” This is very important given that the flight computer is what flies the helicopter autonomously after receiving instructions from NASA hours beforehand.

Ingenuity’s camera takes more images the greater the distance, NASA explained. However, if the helicopter flies too fast, its flight algorithm can’t track surface features. The space agency had only tested Ingenuity in small vacuum chambers on Earth, where it could only move about 1.6 feet (half a meter) in any direction. To replicate the Martian atmosphere, which is only 1% as thick as Earth’s, the chambers are filled with wispy air, mainly carbon dioxide.

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Given the speed, range, and altitude planned for the third test flight, NASA was unsure whether Ingenuity’s camera would track the ground as designed while it was moving faster.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the algorithm for the camera running over a long distance,” MiMi Sung, Ingenuity’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the news release. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber.”

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Based on the successful flight, it would seem so, but we’ve asked NASA for clarification on whether the camera worked as expected.

Not only that, but the Ingenuity team also pushed the helicopter’s limits by instructing it to take more photos on its own, including with its color camera. NASA recently released the first aerial color images taken by Ingenuity on its second flight. You can even see tracks made by the Perseverance rover, which is essentially serving as Ingenuity’s proud and watchful parent as it zooms around the Martian surface.

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The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured it with its color camera during its second successful flight test on April 22, 2021.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s little helicopter is currently carrying out a 30-Martian-day, or 31-Earth-day, technology demonstration that aims to test rotorcraft flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere. It will attempt up to five test flights within that window. The space agency said the Ingenuity team is planning the helicopter’s fourth flight, which will take place in a few days.

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How to Watch the Launch of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 Mission to the ISS

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2, as photographed during a training session. From left are, Mission Specialist Thomas Pesquet of the ESA, Pilot Megan McArthur of NASA, Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA.

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2, as photographed during a training session. From left are, Mission Specialist Thomas Pesquet of the ESA, Pilot Megan McArthur of NASA, Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA.
Image: SpaceX

Early Friday morning, NASA will attempt to launch a CrewDragon to the International Space Station. The occasion will mark just the second time that astronauts will fly aboard the newly developed SpaceX capsule. You can watch the action live right here.

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A Falcon 9 rocket fitted with the CrewDragon is scheduled to launch at 5:49 a.m. EDT (2:49 a.m. PDT) on Friday, April 23 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA TV will cover the launch, which you can watch live right here. The webcast will begin at 1:30 a.m. EDT (10:30 p.m. PDT on Thursday April 22).

The launch was supposed to happen early Thursday, but poor weather conditions bumped the schedule back by a full day. U.S. Space Force 45th Weather Squadron is projecting a 90% chance of favorable weather conditions at launch. Should Friday’s launch be a scrub, the next opportunity will be Monday, April 26 at 4:38 a.m. EDT (1:38 a.m. PDT).

Shortly after launch, the Falcon 9’s first stage will attempt a vertical landing on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship, which will be waiting in the Atlantic Ocean.

Strapped inside the CrewDragon will be NASA astronaut and pilot Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut and commander Shane Kimbrough, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut  Akihiko Hoshide,  and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas  Pesquet, the latter two being mission specialists.

The capsule will dock at the space station on Saturday at 5:10 a.m. EDT (2:10 a.m. PDT), with the hatch opening two hours later. The team will join NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov.

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The Expedition 65 crew has been tasked with a full slate of technical and scientific work.

The crew will test tissue chips, tiny models of human organs with multiple cell types. Innovation in this area could introduce entirely new ways of testing drugs and vaccines, as well as ways of testing cells in microgravity conditions. The experiment could also mimic the processes involved in age-related diseases.

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The Falcon 9 rocket with CrewDragon atop in preparation for Friday’s scheduled launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket with CrewDragon atop in preparation for Friday’s scheduled launch.
Image: NASA

For a study called CHIME, the crew will investigate potential causes of suppressed immunity in microgravity—a serious concern, should we wish to stay in space for long periods of time. As NASA explains, CHIME will “help identify potential causes of immune system dysfunction and lead to ways to prevent or counteract it, helping space travelers as well as those with compromised immune systems on Earth.”

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Upgrades to the station’s solar power system will also take place during Expedition 65, namely installation of the ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA). The first pair of six new arrays is scheduled for installation later this summer.

Expedition 65 will end in October, but the crew will be expected serve as gracious hosts in September when a Russian filmmaker and actress will briefly join the crew to film a movie. As a result, Vande Hei and Dubrov will likely have to spend an entire year in space, as they lost their return seats to the film crew.

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Friday’s launch will be the second to feature a crewed SpaceX CrewDragon capsule; the first was on November 15, 2020. The same capsule used for the Crew-1 mission, informally named Resilience, will be used for the Crew-2 launch.

Launches of CrewDragon should start to become routine, as NASA moves away from its reliance on Russia’s Roscosmos to deliver American astronauts to the ISS using Soyuz rockets. A second commercial crew vehicle, called Starliner, is currently being developed by Boeing, but it won’t be ready any time soon; a second uncrewed test of the system was recently rescheduled for late this summer.

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More: NASA selects SpaceX to build upcoming lunar lander.

NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Just Completed Its Second Flight on Mars

This image was taken by NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance on April 22, 2021. It shows the Ingenuity helicopter during its second flight.

This image was taken by NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance on April 22, 2021. It shows the Ingenuity helicopter during its second flight.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Following up on its first gravity-defying achievement on Mars, the helicopter Ingenuity took flight again this morning for a second, more complex aerial maneuver. The flight was a success, further pushing the limits of what humans (or at least, human-made drones) can do in the thin Martian air.

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The second flight took place at around 5:30 a.m. EDT Monday and lasted about 50 seconds. Ingenuity rose to about 16 feet off the ground, made a lateral move of about 7 feet, then turned and headed back, alighting where it started. Besides slightly increasing the flight duration and maximum height, the main difference from the first flight was that lateral traveling, which sets the stage for the helicopter to make longer runs above “Wright Brothers Field,” as NASA has named the area.

Easy to forget in these images are the extreme conditions under which the intrepid chopper is flying—the atmosphere is only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and gravity about one-third as strong. In a Martian springtime, the temperatures never get above freezing and lows are as cold as -100°F (-73°C). Perhaps that whirr of the helicopter’s blades is really just the craft chattering its teeth?

The helicopter on Tuesday, probably basking in the glory of its latest achievement.

The helicopter on Tuesday, probably basking in the glory of its latest achievement.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

In a press conference on Monday, Ingenuity’s chief pilot Håvard Grip said the expectation for the rest of the planned flights was to be “going higher, going further, going faster.” So far, the team is on track to do just that. And it wouldn’t be space without a race against time: the Ingenuity team has a flight test window of 30 sols (Martian days); today is Sol 18. In other words, we’re in for some awfully cool footage over the next few weeks. So far, all images we’ve received on Earth were taken by Perseverance rover. But the team said they would take images from the helicopter itself on this second flight, which will trickle to Earth over the course of today, as the downlink comes in from over 180 million miles away.

Unlike many of the other probes on Mars, Ingenuity was neither built nor expected to last years. The proof-of-concept helicopter has a total five planned flights, two now completed, but its life beyond that is a big question mark. Its purpose is to test the limits of what a rotorcraft can do on Mars, giving the researchers and engineers data that will inform the design and construction of future fliers.

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See New Footage of Ingenuity’s Remarkable Rise and Successful Landing

The helicopter performed an on-ground spin-up test of its rotors earlier this month.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Fair Use)

Ten vertical feet and 40 seconds. Those are the two numbers that signify a horizon-bending shift in human ambition on Mars and beyond. With Ingenuity’s first hover on Mars early Monday morning, the proof-of-concept for future craft like it has been a resounding success.

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A team of scientists and managers of the Ingenuity project sat down for a press conference this afternoon to share more details about the momentous accomplishment.

“What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension,” Michael Watkins, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during the press conference. “They’ve freed us from the surface now forever.”

During the helicopter’s flight, the Perseverance rover was taking images from the nearby Van Zyl Overlook, like a proud parent at their kid’s school play. The rover also collected environmental data and acted as the operator switchboard for the helicopter, allowing the craft to get information back to NASA’s mission control on Earth.

The spunky little chopper stayed in the air nearly four times longer than the Wright brothers’ first flight (not that it’s a contest), and the Martian airfield has been named for the two pioneers in flight. In the new video above, you can see Ingenuity’s base rotate a little over 90 degrees in midair, like a model at the end of a runway. It is a drone (a “very special drone,” said Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram), but you can’t say the craft doesn’t have a bit of attitude.

Confirmation of the successful flight hit NASA mission control in a cascade. The team first got news of spin-up, takeoff, hover, descent, touchdown, and spin-down—that caused a bit of excitement in the room. But the real moment of relief came when Ingenuity’s altimeter plot appeared on the room’s main screen. The line—straight up, a pause, then straight down—signified the helicopter’s vertical rise and prompt, but delicate, descent; in other words, success.

Ingenuity’s shadow on Mars, imaged by the hovering helicopter.

Ingenuity’s shadow on Mars, imaged by the hovering helicopter.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More images and video will become available as more data is received on Earth, but that’s not all that will come. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL, said Ingenuity’s second flight could happen as soon as Thursday, and the parameters of later flights (there are four more currently planned) will be defined by the results of the second and third flights. The second flight plan is to rise about 6 feet higher than this first journey, move about 6 feet laterally, return to the original lateral position, and land. The third flight would rise to the same height but make a lateral there-and-back of about 150 feet.

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“In general terms, what we’re talking about here is going higher, going further, going faster, stretching the capabilities in those ways,” said Håvard Grip, chief pilot of Ingenuity at JPL, during the press conference. “Exactly how far in those directions is a discussion that we need to have.”

Aung (left) and other members of the Ingenuity team awaited data from Mars early this morning.

Aung (left) and other members of the Ingenuity team awaited data from Mars early this morning.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Fair Use)

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Interestingly, the helicopter doesn’t slow down on descent. Grip said the aircraft actually aims to constantly descend through the ground, and merely stops descending once it realizes that it is on the ground and cannot descend any farther; Grip added that the team doesn’t want the helicopter hanging in the air any longer than they want it to. The helicopter team is operating on a tight schedule, as Perseverance rover needs to get on with its whole “finding extraterrestrial fossil life” mission elsewhere in Jezero Crater, so the next four flights will likely happen in the next two weeks, Aung said. Easy to forget that, as historic Ingenuity is, it is merely a side project to a much more important mission on Red Planet.

If those five flights are successful, NASA will have a tremendous amount of data helping them build a new generation of extraterrestrial helicopters. Being proof-of-concept, this aircraft isn’t meant to last very long. “Ultimately, we expect the helicopter will meet its limit,” Aung said. “We will be pushing the limit very deliberately.” Aung said the distance could be as far as half a mile.

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If you’re impressed by the fact that Ingenuity hovered on Mars this morning, just wait until it’s zipping through the thin atmosphere, hopefully giving us sweeping aerial shots of a Martian land, Perseverance a mere blotch in the distance.