Mars helicopter completes second test flight

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter carried out a second successful test flight Thursday, lifting off from a site dubbed “Wright Brothers Field” in Jezero Crater. It climbed to 16 feet in the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere, tilting to one side for a short out-and-back traverse, and then touched down to close out a 52-second flight.

Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the $80 million Ingenuity project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said telemetry from the four-pound helicopter indicated the flight met all the test objectives and helped confirm pre-flight computer models reflected actual conditions on Mars.

The helicopter’s counter-rotating four-foot-long blades spun up to some 2,500 rpm at 5:33 a.m. EDT (12:33 p.m. local time on Mars), lifting the boxy drone to an altitude of 16 feet, about six feet higher than its initial test flight on Monday.

After briefly hovering in place, the drone’s flight computer ordered a five-degree tilt and the craft slid sideways about seven feet.

“The helicopter came to a stop, hovered in place and made turns to point its camera in different directions,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, said in a statement. “Then it headed back to the center of the airfield to land.

“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.”

A short video captured by a camera on the nearby Perseverance rover shows Ingenuity hovering in the thin air:

Up to five test flights are planned, each one more challenging than the last. For its final planned flight, Ingenuity may climb as high as 30 feet or so and range several hundred feet from the takeoff point.

The helicopter hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance, landing in Jezero Crater on February 18. The $2.4 billion rover is designed to look for signs of past microbial life and to cache rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.

Ingenuity was added to the flight to test the feasibility of powered flight in the red planet’s thin atmosphere, the equivalent of flying at altitudes three times higher than Mount Everest.

So far, the small helicopter has performed like a champ, but engineers plan to “expand the envelope” with a final three, more challenging test flights. After that, Perseverance will leave Ingenuity behind and begin its primary mission.

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