AI & Autonomy, Unmanned

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Completes Second Flight

By Kelsey Reichmann | April 22, 2021
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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its left Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This is one still frame from a sequence captured by the camera while taking video. This image was acquired on Apr. 22, 2021. (NASA JPL)

Ingenuity, NASA’s Mars helicopter, completed a second flight on the red planet on April 22 with new challenges including a higher maximum altitude, longer flight duration, and added sideways movement, according to a statement from NASA. Ingenuity’s first flight was earlier this week on April 19.

“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,” Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement. “We have two flights of Mars under our belts, which means that there is still a lot to learn during this month of Ingenuity.”

The second test flight took place at 5:33 am EDT, or 12:33 pm Mars time, and lasted 51.9 seconds, according to NASA. Ingenuity reached 16 feet in altitude compared to 10 feet during its first flight. It also completed a 5-degree tilt which carried the helicopter sideways for 7 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 at JPL, 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.”

The downward-looking navigation camera aboard NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this image of the rotorcraft’s shadow on the surface of Jezero Crater during helicopter’s second experimental test flight on April 22, 2021. The helicopter’s navigation camera autonomously tracks the ground during flight. (NASA JPL)

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration on the Perseverance Mars rover mission. The JPL team was allocated 30-sol, or 31 Earth days, to complete the demonstration before the Perseverance rover continues on with its mission. This flight is taking place on the 18th sol or Martian day or the demonstration.

The Perseverance rover is sitting about 211 feet away from Ingenuity’s airfield that NASA named “Wright Brothers Field.” The rover is able to use two of its camera to document the flights.

“For the second flight, we tried a slightly different approach to the zoom level on one of the cameras,” Justin Maki, Perseverance project imaging scientist and Mastcam-Z deputy principal investigator at JPL, said in a statement. “For the first flight, one of the cameras was fully zoomed in on the takeoff and landing zone. For the second flight, we zoomed that camera out a bit for a wider field of view to capture more of the flight.”

Ingenuity survived its second flight and is still within its demonstration timeline so it will continue to take more test flights. After the first flight, MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, said there could be up to four additional test flights of the helicopter.

“So, beyond this first flight, over the next coming days we have up to four flights planned and increasingly difficult flights, challenging flights, and we are going to continually push all the way to the limit of this rotorcraft, we really want to push the rotorcraft flights to the limit and really learn and get information back from that,” Aung said in a briefing on April 19.

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