Nasa's Mars helicopter hops for 24 seconds during crucial 'health test'

Ingenuity is the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet

An image of Ingenuity captured by the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface on August 3, 2023. Photo: Nasa
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Nasa's Mars helicopter has taken its first flight in a month to help engineers study why the previous one was cut short.

Ingenuity is the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet and could help to revolutionise the way interplanetary exploration is carried out.

Mission control had lost contact with the helicopter for two months. When contact was re-established last month, it was meant to soar on a 136-second flight but it went on an incorrect trajectory and landed back on the surface after 74 seconds.

On August 3, Ingenuity hopped up and down for 24 seconds to help engineers gather data on what went wrong during the previous flight.

The unscheduled landing was caused by a technical issue, Nasa said on Tuesday.

“The Ingenuity team is confident that the early landing was triggered when image frames from the helicopter’s navigation camera didn’t sync up as expected with data from the rotorcraft’s inertial measurement unit,” the space agency said.

Nasa reveals what its 'Ingenuity' helicopter sounds like flying on the Red Planet

Nasa reveals what its 'Ingenuity' helicopter sounds like flying on the Red Planet

The unit helps engineers measure the helicopter's acceleration and rotational rates – data that makes it possible to estimate the helicopter's location, speed and orientation in space.

The Perseverance rover took an image of the rotorcraft when it landed back on the surface after its short hop.

Ingenuity arrived on the Red Planet in February 2021, on-board Perseverance – the world's most expensive Mars mission to date, at a cost of $2.5 billion.

Its first flight took place on April 19, 2021, when it hovered three metres above ground for 30 seconds.

“After proving flight was possible on Mars, Ingenuity entered an operations demonstration phase in May 2021 to show how aerial scouting could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds,” Nasa said.

The loss of communication earlier this year was expected by mission control as a hill stood between Ingenuity’s landing location and the Perseverance rover.

The helicopter “speaks” with mission control through the rover but communication between the two was blocked by the hill.

On June 28, when the rover went back to the landing area, the signal was re-established.

Even though the disconnection was expected, re-establishing it was not guaranteed, with engineers unable to run health checks on the aircraft as there was no signal.

There was also no way to tell what condition Ingenuity would be in as it waited for Perseverance to come back in range.

But now mission control is relieved that the helicopter is operational again.

“The team is working to better understand what occurred in flight 53, and with flight 54’s success, we’re confident that our baby is ready to keep soaring ahead on Mars,” Nasa said.

Updated: August 09, 2023, 7:56 AM