This enhanced NASA Mars helicopter video solves the Ingenuity dust puzzle

Chris Davies - Apr 21, 2021, 1:08pm CDT
This enhanced NASA Mars helicopter video solves the Ingenuity dust puzzle

NASA has released a new, enhanced video of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter making its historic first flight earlier this week, showing the dramatic takeoff as it kicked up Martian dust while making its way into the record books. The first flight test of Ingenuity took place on Monday, April 19, and saw the helicopter launch, hover for around 30 seconds, and then safely land again.

That may not sound like much, but it’s enough to make Ingenuity the first example of controlled, powered flight on another planet by humanity. The helicopter weighs 4 pounds and is roughly 19 inches tall, with two 4-foot-wide rotor blades on top.

Part of the challenge for those blades is the thin atmosphere on Mars. While gravity on the red planet is significantly lower than on Earth – 62-percent less, in fact – leaving Ingenuity comparatively lighter there than it would be here, the atmospheric volume is less than 1-percent. That makes it much harder to generate lift for the helicopter.

So, the fact that Ingenuity not only took off, but could hover, and then land again safely, is a huge achievement by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) managing the aircraft along with the broader Perseverance rover mission. Now, courtesy of that rover, we have a new insight into just what happened on Monday’s flight test.

The footage was captured by Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z imager, from the rover’s position across Jezero Crater where it had retreated to after depositing Ingenuity on the planet’s surface. On the left is a video using motion filtering, so as to show where dust was detected during the liftoff and landing. The view on the right, meanwhile, has been enhanced with that motion filtering.

It means you can see the plumes of dust that Ingenuity kicked up with its rotors as the helicopter rose from the Martian surface. They slowly drift while it hovers roughly 10 feet in the air, before a second cloud is created when the helicopter returns to the ground.

Among other things, the footage helps answer one common question in the aftermath of the successful first flight: where was all the dust? As anybody who has flown a drone on Earth will know, their rotors may be relatively small but they can kick up a fair amount of dust and dirt nonetheless whenever they’re close to the ground. The fact that Ingenuity didn’t seem to do that had some viewers scratching their heads.

The reality, it seems, is that the red Martian dust was simply too close in color to the backdrop of the crater to be fully visible. That, combined with the fact that it dissipated so slowly, left it looking more like a video artifact than a dust cloud.

NASA’s JPL team is currently working on a second flight mission, which is expected to be scheduled no sooner than April 22. While Ingenuity carries no specific scientific instruments itself, the helicopter trials are intended to demonstrate the feasibility of future flight missions on Mars and their potential for broader data collection.


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