NASA’s engineers already made history Monday with the 39.1-second flight of Ingenuity, a small helicopter, in the thin atmosphere on Mars. On Thursday, they added to their success when the experimental vehicle’s second flight was higher, longer and riskier.
At 5:33 a.m. Eastern time — it was 12:33 p.m. in Jezero crater on Mars — Ingenuity autonomously lifted again off the red surface of Mars, kicking up a cloud of dust as it ascended. It reached a height of 16 feet, tilted itself by 5 degrees to move 7 feet sideways, hovered and turned to point its color camera in multiple directions, then returned to its starting point to land.
This flight lasted 59.1 seconds.
“It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, said in a NASA news release. “That’s why we’re here — to make these unknowns known.”
The Ingenuity helicopter is a demonstration of a new aerial capability that NASA could use in future years. It was added to Perseverance, a rover that cost billions of dollars to send to Mars to search for signs of extinct microbial life. Although the small rotorcraft cost a fraction of the mission that carried it — $85 million — it packs sophisticated computer hardware and software.
The project required engineers at NASA to devise solutions to major engineering problems. Most difficult among them was how to make a helicopter fly in 1/100th the air found at Earth’s surface, without which it is difficult to fly. The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that built Ingenuity overcame these problems with ultralight materials that could spin at roughly 2,400 rotations per minute.
In its first flight, on Monday, Ingenuity rose to a height of 10 feet before pivoting 90 degrees and landing almost exactly where it started. But the short hop was the first powered flight by a helicopter on another world, and extended NASA’s list of distinctions on Mars.
It also reinforced how the solar system’s mysteries can be unlocked with modes of transportation beyond robotic surface rovers and orbiting satellites. Engineers on Earth may be more inspired to explore the potential of other unconventional spacecraft like a robotic blimp to study the clouds of Venus or a submarine drone to dive into the oceans of icy moons like Europa.
There are no current plans to put a second helicopter on Mars. But Bob Balaram, the project’s chief engineer, said Monday that he and colleagues had begun sketching out designs for a larger Mars helicopter capable of carrying some 10 pounds of science equipment.
The Ingenuity team has little time to spare to complete its test program. NASA allocated only 30 Martian days — about 31 Earth days — for up to five test flights. Then the rover, its link to Earth, will head off to start its main mission of searching for signs of past life in a dried-up river delta along the rim of the crater.
The engineers lost a week diagnosing a problem that stopped the Ingenuity’s computer from switching into “flight mode.” Adjusting the commands sent from Earth to Mars appears to have solved the problem.
The remaining flights are to further stretch Ingenuity to its limits. MiMi Aung, the project’s manager, said Monday that she hoped that on its last flight, the helicopter may travel as far as 2,300 feet from its starting point.
Other activities on Perseverance are also gearing up. NASA reported Wednesday the success of an oxygen-generation experiment on the rover called MOXIE. The device broke apart carbon dioxide molecules in the Martian air. That advance will be crucial for future astronauts arriving from Earth — both to create something for them to breathe and to generate propellant for their return to Earth.