Ingenuity Helicopter Takes First Aerial Color Photos of Mars: 'That's Why We're Here'

Ingenuity, NASA's Martian helicopter, sent back color photos from one of its recent flights on the Red Planet

color photo of Mars surface
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter sent back its first color images from Mars, showing a unique perspective of the planet's barren surface from above the ground.

The photographs were taken as Ingenuity, a 4-lb. helicopter that became the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet earlier this month, took its second flight on Thursday.

According to NASA, this trip was a relatively short one, only lasting 51.9 seconds. But in that time, Ingenuity marked several new milestones, such as a higher maximum altitude, increased flight duration and improved sideways movement.

"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, said after the flight.

"We have two flights of Mars under our belts, which means that there is still a lot to learn during this month of Ingenuity," he added.

color photo of Mars surface

During its second flight, the tiny aircraft reached an altitude of 16 feet (a six-foot improvement over its first flight) and snapped colored pictures of the planet's surface.

"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. "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," he continued.

The series of photographs show the planet's rocky, reddish-orange surface. Ingenuity's shadow is visible at the bottom of one of the images (top of this page).

But the historic moment was followed up by more feats just a few days later.

On Sunday, NASA took Ingenuity out for its third flight, once again pushing the limits of the machine.

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While Ingenuity once again climbed to an elevation of 16 feet, this time NASA took the helicopter flying downrange for 164 feet, which is more than the length of half a football field. It also reached a top speed of 6.6 feet per second, the space agency said.

"Today's flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing," Dave Lavery of NASA explained in a statement. "With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions."

A video of Ingenuity's third flight can be seen here.

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