50 flights and Ingenuity is still soaring high
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has been making history since it first took flight on the Red Planet on April 19, 2021. Designed as a technology demonstration, it was intended to prove that powered, controlled flight on another planet was possible. But it has exceeded all expectations, achieving many firsts and transitioning into an operations demonstration. Recently, it completed its 50th flight, traveling over 1,057.09 feet (322.2 meters) in 145.7 seconds and achieving a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters) before alighting near the “Belva Crater.” The helicopter team plans to perform another repositioning flight before exploring the “Fall River Pass” region of Jezero Crater.
Ingenuity was attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February 2021. Every time Ingenuity goes airborne, it covers new ground and offers a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve. Imagery from the helicopter has not only demonstrated how aircraft could serve as forward scouts for future planetary expeditions, but it has even come in handy for the Perseverance team.
By testing the helicopter’s limits, engineers are gathering flight data that can be used by engineers working on designs for possible future Mars helicopters. That includes the people designing the Mars Sample Return campaign’s proposed Sample Recovery Helicopters.
However, the challenges are increasing as the helicopter explores more hazardous terrain. Since leaving the relatively flat confines of Jezero Crater’s floor on Jan. 19, Ingenuity has flown 11 times, setting new speed and altitude records of 14.5 mph (6.5 meters per second) and 59 feet (18 meters) along the way.
As Ingenuity has flown higher and further, it has encountered more hazards and the terrain has become more challenging. Landing spots are now surrounded by hazards, and the helicopter must navigate rugged and relatively uncharted terrain. This means that the team must upgrade the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields.
“We’re flying over the dried-up remnants of an ancient river that is filled with sand dunes, boulders, and rocks, and surrounded by hills that could have us for lunch,” says Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “And while we recently upgraded the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still a white-knuckler.”
Beyond facing more challenging terrain, Ingenuity will also fly at a greater frequency in the future because the helicopter needs to remain within electronic earshot of the rover. With its AutoNav capability, Perseverance can travel hundreds of meters each day.
Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to act as a communications relay between it and mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If the rover gets too far ahead or disappears behind a hill, communications can be lost. The rover team has a job to do and a schedule to keep, so it’s imperative that Ingenuity keeps up and is in the lead whenever possible.
Built with many off-the-shelf components, such as smartphone processors and cameras, Ingenuity is now 23 Earth months and 45 flights beyond its expected lifetime. The rotorcraft has flown for over 89 minutes and more than 7.1 miles (11.6 kilometers).
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” says Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at JPL. “We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250% and expected distance flown by 2,214%.”