Watch NASA’s Mars helicopter fly again as Ingenuity spreads its wings

Chris Davies - Apr 23, 2021, 11:37am CDT
Watch NASA’s Mars helicopter fly again as Ingenuity spreads its wings

NASA has released video of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter’s second flight, a more ambitious test as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team experiments with just what’s possible for powered aircraft on other planets. The test took place on April 22, adding several new elements to the flight-plan compared to the history first attempt made back on April 19.

Then, Ingenuity became the first example of powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on a different planet to our own. Although the helicopter – which traveled up to Mars in the belly of the Perseverance rover – carries no specific scientific instruments itself, future missions could use the results of its test flights to do aerial reconnaissance and more.

That’s something for the future: for now, Ingenuity extended its flight time almost by double. After taking off, it rose to 16 feet – up from the previous 10 feet of the first test – and then hovered briefly. After tilting to a 5-degree angle, it flew sideways for 7 feet.

Following some turns in place, pointing its camera around at different angles, the helicopter returned to the Martian surface safely. In total, it spent 51.9 seconds in the air, versus 30 seconds of the initial flight.

Perseverance was positioned at a safe distance away, observing the trial with its cameras from around 211 feet across Jezero Crater. That simultaneously helps avoid any shadowing of the helicopter and its solar panels, which are used to charge Ingenuity’s batteries, and to lower the risk of damage to the rover should something go wrong while it’s airborne. Since Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z system has a zoom lens, it can still make out the helicopter from across the crater.

In total, Ingenuity’s mission on Mars is scheduled to run for around a month. However, it’s possible that the helicopter itself could outlast that, and remain operational for some time longer. We’ve seen that happen with many of NASA’s projects, including the InSight rover that’s also on Mars. It was originally intended to run for 709 solo, or the equivalent of 728 Earth days, but has already more than 100 sols longer than that.

Although the ability to perform controlled, powered flight on Mars is the big goal of the Ingenuity project, it’s not the only demonstration the helicopter is giving. One of the key elements was its construction, with a combination of custom parts and off-the-shelf components used both in the name of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Much of the technology has close parallels with smartphone tech, for example.

The Qualcomm Flight Platform, for example, has been adapted for use on Mars, with a Snapdragon chipset powering autonomous operations. Bosch’s accelerometer and gyroscope sensors are also found onboard the helicopter, used for tracking speed and direction, and helping maintain overall stability. Due to the distance between Mars and Earth, and the latencies involved in getting a signal back and forth, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team responsible for Ingenuity cannot pilot it manually. Instead, they load the mission criteria ahead of time, and the helicopter flies itself autonomously.

The JPL is now working on putting together a third flight mission, which will push the envelope a little further still.

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