Ingenuity Soars: NASA’s Mars Helicopter Aces 50th Flight – “We Are Not in Martian Kansas Anymore”

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. It completed its 50th flight on April 13, 2023, covering over 1,057 feet and reaching a new altitude record of 59 feet. Initially designed for only five flights, Ingenuity has exceeded expectations, providing invaluable flight data and imagery for future Mars missions. While some components show signs of wear, Ingenuity’s mission continues to push the limits of technology and exploration on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The history-making rotorcraft has recently been negotiating some of the most hazardous terrain it’s encountered on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter marked its 50th flight on April 13, 2023, achieving new altitude and distance records. Despite facing challenging terrain and increased frequency of flights, Ingenuity continues to provide valuable data for future Mars missions.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has completed its 50th flight on Mars. The first aircraft on another world reached the half-century mark on April 13, traveling over 1,057.09 feet (322.2 meters) in 145.7 seconds. The helicopter also achieved a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters) before alighting near the half-mile-wide (800-meter-wide) “Belva Crater.”

Ingenuity at Airfield D

Ingenuity at Airfield D: This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The location, “Airfield D” (the fourth airfield), is just east of the “Séítah” geologic unit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

With Flight 50 in the mission logbook, the helicopter team plans to perform another repositioning flight before exploring the “Fall River Pass” region of Jezero Crater.

“Just as the Wright brothers continued their experiments well after that momentous day at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Ingenuity team continues to pursue and learn from the flight operations of the first aircraft on another world,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter made history when it achieved the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021. A little less than two years later, on April 13, 2023, it completed its 50th flight. Here are some highlights from the rotorcraft’s journeys on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Ingenuity landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and will soon mark the two-year anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19, 2021. Designed as a technology demonstration that would fly no more than five times, the helicopter was intended to prove powered, controlled flight on another planet was possible. But Ingenuity exceeded expectations and transitioned into being an operations demonstration.

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.

Teddy Tzanetos at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides an update on the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter and discusses how it’s inspiring future aerial exploration of the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Riskier Terrain

Since leaving the relatively flat confines of Jezero Crater’s floor on January 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.

Although the deep chill of winter and regional dust events (which can block the Sun’s rays from reaching the helicopter’s solar panel) have abated, Ingenuity continues to brown out at night. As a result, the Helicopter Base Station on the rover needs to search for the rotorcraft’s signal each morning at the time Ingenuity is predicted to wake up. And when the helicopter does fly, it now must navigate rugged and relatively uncharted terrain, landing in spots that can be surrounded by hazards.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is seen here at the starting point of its 47th flight on Mars. The video was captured by the Mastcam-Z imager aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover on March 9, 2023. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

“We are not in Martian Kansas anymore,” said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “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. And while we recently upgraded the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still a white-knuckler.”

Frequent Flyer

Beyond facing more challenging terrain, Ingenuity will also fly at a greater frequency in the coming days 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 here at JPL,” said Anderson. “If the rover gets too far ahead or disappears behind a hill, we could lose communications. The rover team has a job to do and a schedule to keep. So it’s imperative Ingenuity keeps up and is in the lead whenever possible.”

Perseverance recently completed exploring “Foel Drygarn,” a scientific target that may contain hydrated silica (which is of strong astrobiological interest). It is currently headed to “Mount Julian,” which will provide a panoramic view into nearby Belva Crater.

NASA Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars Illustration

Illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Feats of Ingenuity

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,” said 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%.”

Surpassing expectations like this comes at a cost, however. With some helicopter components showing signs of wear and the terrain becoming more challenging, the Ingenuity team recognizes that every great mission must eventually come to an end. “We have come so far, and we want to go farther,” said Tzanetos. “But we have known since the very beginning our time at Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now is something no one can predict at present. What I can predict is that when it does, we’ll have one heck of a party.”

Ingenuity Begins to Spin Its Blades

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter does a slow spin test of its blades, on April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. This image was captured by the Navigation Cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More About Ingenuity

JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) constructed the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter and oversees the project on behalf of NASA Headquarters. Support for the endeavor comes from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, contributing substantial flight performance analysis and technical guidance during the development of Ingenuity. Companies such as AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm, and SolAero also lent their expertise in design and supplied key vehicle components. The Mars Helicopter Delivery System was designed and produced by Lockheed Space.

At the helm of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter program at NASA Headquarters is Dave Lavery, serving as the program executive.

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