Astronomers Capture Wild Image of China’s Out-of-Control Rocket

A view of China’s wayward Long March 5b rocket.

A view of China’s wayward Long March 5b rocket.
Image: Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

A glistening image of China’s wayward Long March 5B rocket, which is expected to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere this weekend, has been captured by astronomers with the Virtual Telescope Project.

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The single-second exposure was captured on May 6.

“At the imaging time, the rocket stage was at about 700 km [435 miles] from our telescope, while the Sun was just a few degrees below the horizon, so the sky was incredibly bright: these conditions made the imaging quite extreme, but our robotic telescope succeeded in capturing this huge debris,” Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project, explained in a recent post. “This is another bright success, showing the amazing capabilities of our robotic facility in tracking these objects.”

The new view of China’s out-of-control rocket.

The new view of China’s out-of-control rocket.
Image: Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

To which he added: “As you can see, on the bottom of the bright image of the rocket there is the typical CCD blooming effect, due to the extreme brightness of the object.” By “CCD,” Masi is referring to charge-coupled devices—integrated circuits used in digital imaging. More about the CCD blooming effect here.

Masi’s group, in cooperation with the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Italy, uses remotely controlled telescopes to observe space, spotting things like comets, asteroids, and the odd piece of space junk coming back to taunt us.

This time, the robotic system managed to capture China’s 98-foot-tall (30-meter) Long March 5B heavy-lift launch vehicle, which launched on April 28. This core stage is currently out of control and expected to re-enter Earth’s orbit on Saturday, May 8 at 10:34 p.m. EDT (Sunday, May 9 at 2:34 a.m. UTC), give or take about 21 hours, according to Masi.

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The exact time of re-entry and where the rocket might crash are unknown because, like I just said, it’s literally out of control. The core stage is currently orbiting the planet once every 90 minutes, at speeds reaching more than 4.4 miles per second (7 km/s), making precise predictions very difficult. In an email, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said “a one-hour error in the reentry time is an 18,000-mile error in the location.” Debris from the core stage is likely to fall into the ocean or onto uninhabited areas on land, but a risk to human life and property is not out of the question.

That the rocket is out of control is obviously problematic. Normally, core stages don’t end up in orbit—after boosting their cargo to space, they fall down to a predetermined location on Earth’s surface. In this case, the Long March 5b reached orbit and soon will reenter the atmosphere at a time and place not controlled by China’s space agency. This is now the second incident of its kind involving a Long March 5b (debris from a previous core stage caused damage to villages in Cote d’Ivoire), so it’s possible the system is designed this way. Hard to know, given the secretive nature of China’s space program.

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The launch on April 28 was the first of 11 planned, in which Long March 5b rockets will deliver components required for the construction of Tianhe-1—China’s first independently built space station. Should the next 10 launches go just like this, China will have some answering to do.

More: U.S. military doesn’t know where Chinese space debris might land.

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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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U.S. Military Doesn’t Know Where Chinese Space Debris Might Land

A Long March 5B rocket, carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province on April 29, 2021.

A Long March 5B rocket, carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province on April 29, 2021.
Photo: STR/AFP (Getty Images)

The U.S. military is tracking an enormous piece of Chinese space debris which is expected to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime around May 8, according to a press release from U.S. Space Command. But as the Pentagon points out, no one knows quite where it will land yet.

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The space debris in question is formally known as a Long March 5B, the rocket that launched part of China’s Tianhe Space Station into orbit on April 28. As Space News notes, the reentry of this rocket is one of the largest uncontrolled entries in history and there are concerns it could land in an area inhabited by humans.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8,” Space Command said in a statement. “Until then, the 18th Space Control Squadron will be offering daily updates to the rocket body’s location on Space-track.org beginning May 4.”

Space News explains that it’s highly unlikely space debris of this kind will crush someone here on Earth, but it’s still a possibility:

The high speed of the rocket body means it orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes and so a change of just a few minutes in reentry time results in reentry point thousands of kilometers away.

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.

The most likely event will see any debris surviving the intense heat of reentry falling into the oceans or uninhabited areas, but the risk remains of damage to people or property.

And the U.S. military has assured citizens that this is one of the reasons they’re on the watch.

“The 18th SPCS at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, is tasked with providing 24/7 support to the Space Surveillance Network and tracks more than 27,000 man-made objects in space, the majority of which are in low-earth orbit,” U.S. Space Command said in a statement.

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“All debris can be potential threats to spaceflight safety and the space domain, and the 18th SPCS delivers front-line space defense and warnings to the global space community.”

SpaceX’s Starlink Satellite Internet Orders Reportedly Already Exceed 500,000

Illustration for article titled SpaceX's Starlink Satellite Internet Orders Reportedly Already Exceed 500,000

Photo: ESA / Handout (Getty Images)

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is having a banner year, and apparently things just keep getting better: On Tuesday, the company announced that it has received upwards of 500,000 orders for its satellite internet service, Starlink.

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“To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink,” SpaceX operations engineer Siva Bharadvaj said during a launch event broadcasting its 26th Starlink mission.

Starlink is SpaceX’s planned interconnected internet network, which already features thousands of active satellites — an array known in the space industry as a constellation — that are designed to work together in order to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.

Back in December 2020, Starlink won a massive government contract — to the tune of $885 million — to provide high-speed internet to underserved, rural areas of the U.S. The contract came just two months after SpaceX had begun a public beta program for Starlink, pricing internet service at $99 a month on top of a $499 upfront cost that includes a user terminal and Wi-Fi router to connect to the satellites.

In its current form, Starlink is already the world’s largest satellite constellation, with more than 1,500 Starlink satellites currently in orbit.

Despite the announcement of over half a million orders already in play, those numbers are subject to change; as of now, all of those orders are still “completely refundable.” In a Tuesday tweet, Musk himself acknowledged that the preliminary sales numbers were also limited by high density of users in urban areas.” 

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Most likely, all of the initial 500k will receive service,” he wrote.More of a challenge when we get into the several million user range.”

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

NASA Suspends SpaceX’s Work on Lunar Lander Until Complaints Over Contract Are Resolved

Artist’s conception of SpaceX’s lander on the lunar surface.

Artist’s conception of SpaceX’s lander on the lunar surface.
Illustration: SpaceX

NASA has suspended SpaceX’s work on its $2.9 billion lunar lander to return astronauts to the moon due to protests filed Blue Origin and Dynetics, the companies that the space agency didn’t choose to build its lunar lander.

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On Friday, NASA spokesperson Monica Witt announced issued a brief statement announcing the pause and said it would remain until the Government Accountability Office resolved the complaints associated to the procurement, according to Engadget. The GAO has until Aug. 4, at the latest, to make a decision over the challenges presented by Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and defense contractor Dynetics.

“On April 26, NASA was notified that Blue Origin Federation and Dynetics filed protests challenging the Option A human landing system selection with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO),” Witt said. “Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement. NASA cannot provide further comment due to the pending litigation.”

Gizmodo contacted NASA to confirm Witt’s statement on Saturday but did not receive a response by the time of publication. A request for comment from SpaceX was also not immediately returned. We’ll update this blog if we hear back.

NASA’s ordered pause on SpaceX’s work on the lunar lander, for which it will use its Starship launch system, means that SpaceX won’t immediately receive the first installment of the $2.9 billion award, the Verge reported. The company also won’t begin the initial talks with NASA that are customary at the commencement of a major contract.

Nonetheless, considering that SpaceX plans to use Starship to carry cargo and crew to Earth’s orbit, the Moon, and Mars, the company is likely to continue development on Starship, the Verge noted. Earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Administration said it had authorized the next three launches of the Starship prototype. Several Starship prototypes have carried out high-altitude flights, but to date all flights have ended in explosions.

In its complaint filed on Monday, Blue Origin alleged that NASA had “executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute.” First, the company states that NASA indicated its intention to make two awards for its lunar lander system but changed its mind due to “perceived shortfalls” in its current and future budget. Going with a sole provider threatens to eliminate competition in this area, Blue Origin claims.

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That’s not all though. Among other perceived slights, Blue Origin is also crying foul over the price of the lunar lander. The company gave NASA a price of $5.99 billion, more than double SpaceX’s price. However, the company states that NASA allowed SpaceX to revise its price but did not give the same opportunity to Blue Origin and Dynetics.

Dynetics, which also filed its complaint on Monday, argues that NASA should have revised its approach to the lunar lander or withdrawn the solicitation once it knew it didn’t have funding to support two companies, SpaceNews reported. Instead, NASA decided to go with “the most anti-competitive and high-risk option available.”

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NASA’s decision essentially makes SpaceX its lunar lander provider for the foreseeable future, Dynetics affirmed, according to SpaceNews. The company also criticized NASA’s analysis of SpaceX’s technical approach.

“NASA failed to consider the risks inherent in SpaceX’s technical approach and, more specifically, information too close at hand for NASA to ignore—i.e., that four SpaceX Starships have exploded at various stages of their tests flights in recent months,” Dynetics said in the complaint. “NASA has given SpaceX a pass on its demonstrable lack of such systems engineering.”

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The company does have a point there. Blue Origin seemed to be the leader in the bidding process, and its choice for a lunar lander was considered sensitive and safe. SpaceX has to prove that its Starship approach, which includes refueling a rocket in space and landing a rocket vertically on the lunar surface, among others, is possible. Neither of these things has ever been done before. It also has to keep its Starships from exploding.

NASA’s current plan is to send two astronauts—a man and woman—to the lunar surface in 2024.

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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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