NASA’s Mars helicopter nails second, more complex flight on red planet

There’s just no stopping NASA’s Mars helicopter. Following its historic 40-second hover earlier in the week that saw it become the first aircraft to perform controlled, powered flight on another planet, Ingenuity on Thursday successfully performed a second, more complex flight on the red planet.

This time around the 4-pound, 19-inch-high aircraft stayed in the Martian air for 51.9 seconds, reaching an altitude of 5 meters before tilting slightly for a 2-meter sideways maneuver ahead of landing.

The #MarsHelicopter faced new challenges in its second flight and reached each milestone. https://t.co/L18F2NCeaZ
It achieved:
✅ 51.9-second flight time
✅ 16-foot altitude (5 meters)
✅ 5˚ tilt to accelerate sideways ~7 feet (2 meters) pic.twitter.com/9yMsRLhbcl

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 23, 2021

“So far, the engineering telemetry we have received and analyzed tell us that the flight met expectations and our prior computer modeling has been accurate,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Mars helicopter at NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Mars mission. “We have two flights of Mars under our belts, which means that there is still a lot to learn during this month of Ingenuity.”

Ingenuity landed on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021 following a six-month journey from Earth. It’s Perseverance that’s been sending back footage of Ingenuity’s airborne adventures, captured by one of the rover’s many onboard cameras. Perseverance also relays the flight commands from JPL to the helicopter, which then flies autonomously.

Challenging

Flying an aircraft in the Martian atmosphere presents a much greater challenge than flying such a machine on Earth. It’s because the Martian atmosphere is only about 1% of the density at Earth’s surface, making it much harder to achieve lift. Indeed, to get off the ground, Ingenuity has to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at around 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), considerably faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by helicopters on Earth.

As part of the Ingenuity technology demonstration, the team at JPL plans to conduct a total of five flights of increasing complexity.

Ingenuity’s flight tests could lead to more sophisticated aircraft designs capable of surveying the Martian surface from a close distance, buzzing over rocky terrain that ground-based rovers would find hard to navigate. Such drone-like machines can also be used to collect data for mapping routes for future Mars rovers, and could even be used to explore other places in our solar system.

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