Defying Expectations: NASA’s Pioneering Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Awarded Prestigious Collier Trophy

NASA Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Spin

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s carbon fiber blades can be seen in this video taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. They are performing a wiggle test before the actual spin-up to ensure they were working properly. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet has garnered an award whose past recipients make up a timeline of aerospace innovation and achievement.

The National Aeronautic Association has bestowed the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy on the team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, cementing the pioneering rotorcraft’s place in aerospace history just as it is about to embark on its second year of flying in the frigid, extremely thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.

Established more than a century ago, the award has marked major achievements in the timeline of flight, including Orville Wright in 1913 for developing the automatic stabilizer, Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager for his sound-barrier-breaking 1947 flight of the X-1 rocket plane, and the crews of NASA’s Apollo 8, 11, and 15 for their missions to the Moon in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Lands

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter lands with a soft bounce after its fifth flight, as captured by the Mastcam-Z imager aboard Perseverance. The helicopter has been honored with multiple awards since its historic first flight on April 19, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The National Aeronautic Association awards the trophy annually for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles.” For the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, it’s especially meaningful to be included among past winners after the enormous challenges they faced by seeing the project launch and take flight amid a global pandemic.

“Nearly every step we took on this journey moved into uncharted territory, and many didn’t believe we’d even make it into the air. Now, thinking back to waiting nervously to see if our first sortie would be a success, it’s incredible to be where we are today,” said JPL’s Teddy Tzanetos, team lead for the helicopter. “The Collier Trophy is such an honor, and I’m so proud of everyone who worked so hard to realize this vision.”

The helicopter began as an idea from JPL’s Bob Balaram. It was championed by former JPL Director Charles Elachi, with the late Jakob van Zyl providing leadership and inspiration to the team that developed the rotorcraft.

Ingenuity landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and first took flight April 19, 2021. Designed as a technology demonstration, Ingenuity was planned to complete no more than five flights. But the craft, which is just 19.3 inches (49 centimeters) tall and weighs less than 4 pounds (2 kilograms), has completed 24, defying expectations and transitioning into an operations demonstration, serving as an aerial scout for Perseverance. With Ingenuity’s mission extended through September 2022, it can continue testing its limits in order to support the design of future Mars air vehicles.

Other Honors for Ingenuity

The Collier Trophy adds to a list of awards received by NASA’s Ingenuity team. Last month, the Ingenuity team accepted the Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy from the National Space Club & Foundation, as well as the Michael Collins Trophy for Current Achievement from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The team also recently won the Vertical Flight Society’s Howard Hughes Award for “outstanding improvement in fundamental helicopter technology,” the John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. Award for Space Exploration from the Space Foundation, Aviation Week Network’s 2021 Laureate Award, and the Royal Institute of Navigation’s Duke of Edinburgh’s Navigation Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement. Ingenuity will be honored with the 2022 IEEE Spectrum Emerging Technology Award at a May 6 ceremony in San Diego.

More About Ingenuity

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by JPL, which also manages the project for NASA Headquarters. It is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, provided significant flight performance analysis and technical assistance during Ingenuity’s development. AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, and SolAero also provided design assistance and major vehicle components. Lockheed Space in Denver designed and manufactured the Mars Helicopter Delivery System.

At NASA Headquarters, Dave Lavery is the program executive for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

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