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Mars helicopter to attempt a more complex flight on Thursday

NASA has announced that its Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt a second, more complex flight on the red planet on Thursday, April 22.

The flight attempt will come just three days after Ingenuity became the first-ever aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

In a tweet on Wednesday, NASA said Ingenuity’s second flight will involve the machine climbing to a height of 5 meters before tilting slightly and flying two meters sideways. Ingenuity will then come to a stop, hover in place, and make turns to point its color camera in different directions. After that, it’ll come in to land.

The Mars helicopter’s maiden flight involved only a hover, 3 meters above the Martian surface. NASA said previously that each of Ingenuity’s five flights will be increasingly complex, with the final one expected to see it fly a distance of up to 300 meters.

How do you top #MarsHelicopter’s historic first flight? Go bigger.

We'll attempt a more challenging 2nd flight on April 22: 50-second flight time, climb to ~16 ft (5m), and 5º tilt to accelerate sideways ~7 ft (2m). We'll update you here with the results.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) April 21, 2021

Ingenuity’s flights are made autonomously, based on commands sent to the helicopter via the Perseverance rover, which will also record video of the flight. The rover and helicopter reached Mars together in dramatic fashion in February 2021 following a six-month journey from Earth.

NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Mars mission, said Ingenuity’s rotors will be programmed to fire up at 5:30 a.m. ET (2:30 a.m. PT) on Thursday. NASA is yet to announce whether it will livestream the event on NASA TV in the same way that it did for the maiden flight earlier this week.

Flying a machine on Mars presents different challenges than Earth as the Martian atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than our own. To get off the ground, Ingenuity, which weighs 4 pounds and stands 19 inches high, had to spin its four carbon-fiber blades — arranged into two rotors — at 2,500 revolutions per minute (rpm), significantly faster than the approximately 500 rpm used by helicopters on Earth. The device also has to be able to handle Mars’ bitterly cold temperatures.

Writing about Ingenuity’s achievement when it became the first aircraft to take flight on another planet, MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars helicopter project manager at JPL, said that while every image of Ingenuity beamed back to Earth is special, “perhaps the one that will stay with me the most is that image from the helicopter’s navigation camera (below). Taken when the rotorcraft was 2.1 meters in the air, the black-and-white image shows the shadow of our beloved Ingenuity.”

Aung went on: “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;’ ours says ‘we flew on another world.'”

Left to right: Buzz Aldrin took this iconic image of a bootprint on the Moon during the Apollo 11 moonwalk on July 20, 1969. NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this shot, capturing its own shadow, while hovering over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. It used its navigation camera, which autonomously tracks the ground during flight. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity’s flight tests will pave the way for more sophisticated aircraft designs that can be used to survey the Martian surface from a close distance, unhindered by terrain. 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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