free bird

Mars helicopter photo shows Ingenuity's most audacious flight yet

The tiny companion to the Perseverance Mars 2020 rover made a second flight over Jezero Crater.

Having nailed its maiden flight on Mars, Ingenuity is already on to bigger, better things. On Thursday, the helicopter-like craft completed its second flight, surpassing some of the milestones achieved by the first flight. The historic moment was captured by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z.

The helicopter spent 51.9 seconds in flight above the surface of Mars — some 12 seconds longer than it managed in its first flight. It also reached an altitude of 16 feet above Mars and moved about seven feet in distance. While that isn’t much compared to what drone technology can achieve here on Earth, it is important to remember that Earth-based rotor vehicles also benefit from certain atmospheric conditions and human operators who don’t have to account for light-speed delays.

“The helicopter came to a stop, hovered in place, and made turns to point its camera in different directions,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says in a statement.

“Then it headed back to the center of the airfield to land. It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars. That’s why we’re here — to make these unknowns known.”

As far as making the unknown known, Ingenuity also managed to take more images of the Red Planet from above, too — and even captured an artsy selfie, sort of.

Ingenuity captured this photo of its own shadow on the surface of Mars on its second flight

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Here’s the background — On Monday April 19, Ingenuity took its maiden flight, rising up about 10 feet and lasting for a little over 39 seconds — nine for liftoff and landing, and 30 seconds worth of hovering. NASA released footage of the helicopter in flight taken on April 19 by Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z imager.

The small helicopter is a mere 1 foot 7 inches tall and weighs four pounds. The rotors, meanwhile, stretch out four feet in diameter to enable the drone to fly through the thin atmosphere of Mars, which is just one percent that of Earth’s.

The small size had a few other benefits, including being able to stow away under the SUV-sized rover during the transit to Mars. The rover gently placed its companion on the soil of Jezero Crater on March 31 in preparation for its first flight. But a few delays and a software update shifted its initial trip by a week.

But on Monday, Ingenuity became the first controlled robotic flight to take place on another world. (In the 1980s, the then-Soviet Union space agency, Roscosmos, sent balloons to Venus, but they were not remote-controlled from Earth, so they don’t count in this tally.)

Perseverance and Ingenuity are close enough to each other that the rover can still take pictures of the tiny helicopter.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

What’s next — There are at least three more scheduled flights for the helicopter already on the books in the coming weeks.

They are tentatively scheduled for no earlier than:

  • April 26
  • April 29
  • May 2

The goal with each new test is to go higher and to push the helicopter to its maximum flight duration — around 90 seconds. It should also be able to traverse across distances of 164 feet. The helicopter is a prototype for potential future missions, so it doesn’t have a robust array of instruments. Yet it provides critical data not only for flying helicopters on Mars but also their potential use on other rocky worlds with substantial atmospheres, like Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan.

After Ingenuity’s first few flights, the Perseverance rover will officially begin its own exploration of Mars, leaving its small, solar-powered companion quite literally in the dust. But don’t worry — if we ever get Ingenuity back, the social media person for the National Air and Space Museum has already volunteered to gladly take it off NASA’s hands.

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