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

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. (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 manoeuvre. 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.

The second flight took place at around 7:30 p.m. AEST Thursday and should have lasted about 50 seconds. The goal was for Ingenuity to rise to about 5 metres off the ground, make a lateral move of about 2 metres, then turn and head back, alighting where it started. We’re waiting for confirmation from NASA as to whether all went as planned. Besides slightly increasing the flight duration and maximum height, the main difference from the first flight was that lateral travelling, 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 -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 achievement. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU) The helicopter on Tuesday, probably basking in the glory of its 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 289 million kilometres 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.