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Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully completes second, riskier flight

April 22, 2021
The Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed a second flight on Mars on Thursday, and it was even more challenging than the first. — Courtesy — NASA
The Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed a second flight on Mars on Thursday, and it was even more challenging than the first. — Courtesy — NASA



WASHINGTON — The Ingenuity helicopter successfully completed a second flight on Mars on Thursday, and it was even more challenging than the first.

Ingenuity autonomously flew for almost 52 seconds this time, climbing 16 feet (4.9 meters) up through the Martian atmosphere. After a brief hover, it tilted at a 5-degree angle and moved sideways for 7 feet (2.1 meters).

The helicopter hovered in place again to make several turns. This occurred to allow Ingenuity's color camera to capture images taken looking in different directions before touching back down in the center of the airfield. Ingenuity only collected black-and-white images with its navigation camera during the first flight.

"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," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity's chief pilot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mars has one-third of the gravity we experience on Earth and the atmosphere is 1 percent of the density of Earth's at its surface. This makes the controlled flight much more difficult on Mars. Information gathered from these flights will inform future rotorcraft that could explore Mars and other planets.

Ingenuity already has sent back a black-and-white image from this second flight, showing the shadow of the helicopter on the Martian surface as the rotorcraft hovered above.

"So far, the engineering telemetry we have received and analyzed tells us that the flight met expectations and our prior computer modeling has been accurate," said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.

"We have two flights of Mars under our belts, which means that there is still a lot to learn during this month of Ingenuity."

The team is prepared to attempt three more flights over the next week.

Ingenuity had a "flawless" first flight on Monday, lasting about 40 seconds, where it lifted up 10 feet (3 meters) in the air, hovered, made a turn, and safely landed. It was the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

After that first flight, the NASA helicopter team wanted to push Ingenuity to do more.

The second test at the newly named Wright Brothers Field on Mars took place at 5:33 a.m. ET or 12:33 p.m. local Mars time, but data from the flight didn't begin feeding into the mission control center at JPL until 9:20 a.m. ET.

Commands for the flight were sent on Wednesday night to the Perseverance rover, which acts as a communication station between the helicopter and its team on Earth. After uploading the commands from the rover, Ingenuity is able to fly by itself.

Perseverance trained its cameras on the helicopter from 210 feet (64 meters) away at the Van Zyl Overlook, and the team is expecting "more phenomenal imagery" from the rover of the second flight test.

"Every image we get of the helicopter on Mars is special to me: After all, this has never been done before," wrote MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter project manager at JPL, in her helicopter update.

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But the black-and-white image of the helicopter's shadow on the surface of Mars, captured during the first flight, is the one that will stay with her most, Aung wrote.

"While it's up to others to decide the image's historical significance of this moment when I first saw it, I immediately thought of the picture Buzz Aldrin took of his boot print on the lunar surface. That iconic image from Apollo 11 said 'we walked on the Moon,'" she wrote. "Ours says 'we flew on another world.'" — Courtesy CNN


April 22, 2021
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