Following up on its first gravity-defying achievement on Mars, the helicopter Ingenuity took flight again this morning for a second, more complex aerial maneuver. The flight was a success, further pushing the limits of what humans (or at least, human-made drones) can do in the thin Martian air.
The second flight took place at around 5:30 a.m. EDT Thursday and should have lasted about 50 seconds. The goal was for Ingenuity to rise to about 16 feet off the ground, make a lateral move of about 7 feet, then turn and head back, alighting where it started. We’re waiting for confirmation from NASA as to whether all went as planned. Besides slightly increasing the flight duration and maximum height, the main difference from the first flight was that lateral traveling, which sets the stage for the helicopter to make longer runs above “Wright Brothers Field,” as NASA has named the area.
Easy to forget in these images are the extreme conditions under which the intrepid chopper is flying—the atmosphere is only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and gravity about one-third as strong. In a Martian springtime, the temperatures never get above freezing and lows are as cold as -100°F (-73°C). Perhaps that whirr of the helicopter’s blades is really just the craft chattering its teeth?
NASA released a video of the flight, captured by Perseverance, on Thursday afternoon:
In a press conference on Monday, Ingenuity’s chief pilot Håvard Grip said the expectation for the rest of the planned flights was to be “going higher, going further, going faster.” So far, the team is on track to do just that. And it wouldn’t be space without a race against time: the Ingenuity team has a flight test window of 30 sols (Martian days); today is Sol 18. In other words, we’re in for some awfully cool footage over the next few weeks. So far, all images we’ve received on Earth were taken by Perseverance rover. But the team said they would take images from the helicopter itself on this second flight, which will trickle to Earth over the course of today, as the downlink comes in from over 180 million miles away.
Unlike many of the other probes on Mars, Ingenuity was neither built nor expected to last years. The proof-of-concept helicopter has a total five planned flights, two now completed, but its life beyond that is a big question mark. Its purpose is to test the limits of what a rotorcraft can do on Mars, giving the researchers and engineers data that will inform the design and construction of future fliers.