Ingenuity Flies Again While Percy Makes Oxygen

Ingenuity Flies Again While Percy Makes Oxygen

NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are busy at work on the surface of Mars. Ingenuity made a second flight today, higher and longer than the first, while an experiment on the rover — known as Percy for short — produced oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.

Ingenuity, the first vehicle to make a powered flight on another planet, made an encore performance today in the second of as many as five flights that will take place over the next two weeks.

Unlike the first flight on Monday, NASA did not provide a livestream when the data arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but released a brief video later. The helicopter flew for 51.9 seconds, compared to 39.1 seconds on the first flight.  It rose to an altitude of 5 meters (16 feet), 2 meters higher than the first time. In addition to hovering and turning, it also moved 2 meters (7 feet) sideways and back again before landing.

Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, said the flight might seem 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.”

Ingenuity is a technology demonstration, not a part of Perseverance’s primary science mission, and NASA has given the Ingenuity team just one month to conduct its tests before Perseverance moves on.  More than half that time has elapsed already, but they are hoping to squeeze in three more flights and go far and fast to test the helicopter to its limits. Details on the next flight will be announced in coming days.

MOXIE as it was being lowered into the Perseverance rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Perseverance rover has been sitting still nearby taking videos of the helicopter flights, but also conducting other experiments. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is designed to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere that could be used for propellant or to support human outposts in the future.

On Tuesday, MOXIE did exactly that for the first time.

The Martian atmosphere is 96 percent CO2.  Converting that to oxygen and carbon monoxide requires high temperatures — 800 degrees Celsius (1470 degrees Fahrenheit) — so MOXIE is designed with heat tolerant parts.

In this first run, MOXIE produced 5 grams of oxygen, enough for 10 minutes of breathable air. It can produce twice that amount per hour. Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate said it is the first technology that could allow astronauts to “live off the land” using resources that already exist on Mars, also called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

Like Ingenuity, MOXIE is a technology demonstration riding along with Perseverance, whose main purpose is to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. It will soon begin a 2-year journey exploring its landing site, Jezero Crater. Scientists believe 3.5 billion years ago it was a lake at the end of a river. All life as we know it requires water and they hope this could be a site where life once existed.

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