Mars is often referred to as the “Red Planet” because of the rusty, reddish-orange sandscape blanketing the planet. That comes into sharp focus in our first color photo snapped by the Mars Ingenuity helicopter.
That was taken about 17 feet above the ground. You can clearly see the sandy red-orange Martian surface. And if you look at the bottom of the image, you’ll clearly see Ingenuity’s shadow, with two of its spindly legs visibly jutting out from it’s rectangular body.
Those patterns in the ground that look like tracks are in fact… tracks left by the Perseverance rover, the remote-operated research vehicle that carried Ingenuity safely to Mars. Once it deposited its flying robot friend the Perseverance headed off to a new location, first to monitor the helicopter for a month and then to proceed with its other duties.
Here’s a closer look at those tracks.
Technically, you’re looking at something historic in the above images. This isn’t just the first color photo that Mars Ingenuity sent back home; it’s also “the first color image of the Martian surface taken by an aerial vehicle while it was aloft,” says NASA. That’s a bigger deal than it might sound like initially.
The whole purpose of Ingenuity’s presence on Mars is to test NASA’s ability to operate an aerial vehicle in the Martian atmosphere. We’re currently investigating the planet with the help of drones like Ingenuity and Perseverance, but at some point the plan is to get humans out there as well, along with more elaborate vehicles.
So it’s important to understand how aerodynamics work in the Martian atmosphere, especially since getting to Mars isn’t a simple process. (The journey that brought Perseverance and Ingenuity to the planet was a seven-month trip.) One wrong decision on Earth could set back research for a year or more.
This is also why NASA is using the vehicles to conduct other tests, such as exploring the viability of drawing oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere. Human visitors will obviously need a ready supply of breathable air if they’re going to spend an appreciable amount of time checking out the planet, so checking to see if and how that’s possible now, before people get there, is vital.
The photo above was snapped during Ingenuity’s second flight, which occurred on April 22. Its inaugural flight went off without a hitch just a few days earlier, on April 19. Now NASA is already looking ahead to the next one: Ingenuity will take to the Martian “skies” again — it really doesn’t fly that high — on the morning of April 25.
The idea with these tests is to keep ramping things up, so expect a bigger showing this time around. For the first flight, Ingenuity spent about 40 seconds off the ground, hovering in place at a height of roughly 10 feet. The second test went higher, close to 17 feet, and saw the helicopter move about six and a half feet to the east, then back. It spent almost a minute in the air and made three turns during that time.
NASA doesn’t expect the third flight to take Ingenuity any higher, but it will move faster — going from roughly 1 mile-per-hour to 4.5 miles-per-hour — and travel a longer distance. The plan is for Ingenuity to head a bit more than 160 feet to the north then return to its starting point, named “Wright Brothers Field,” and land. Total flight time will come close to a minute and a half.
All of these details may not sound particularly impressive, but NASA puts them into context with some historical perspective in the write-up from Håvard Grip, chief pilot for the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“While (the 330-foot flight distance for test three) may not seem like a lot, consider that we never moved laterally more than about two-pencil lengths when we flight-tested in the vacuum chamber here on Earth,” Grip writes. “And while the 4 meters of lateral movement in Flight Two (2 meters out and then 2 meters back) was great, providing lots of terrific data, it was still only 4 meters. As such, Flight Three is a big step, one in which Ingenuity will begin to experience freedom in the sky.”
You’re seeing the culmination of years worth of work playing out in real time as these tests unfold. During the 30-day period starting with its first flight, and barring any technical difficulties or equipment failures, NASA hopes to conduct five flight tests in total using Ingenuity.