It was meant to be a proof-of-concept, that would be a roaring success if it managed to fly 5 times. Its first of those flights took place almost two years ago, on the 19th of April 2021. Since then, Ingenuity has transitioned to proving a different concept – an operational one. NASA has been using its helicopter as a scout, to find better routes and points of interest for its Perseverance Mars rover.
But even in this role, which it wasn’t designed for, Ingenuity has long surpassed any expectations for longevity. The NASA helicopter has flown over Mars for over 89 minutes, in 50 flights. In the process, it covered a distance of 7.1 miles (11.6 km). Or as JPL Ingenuity Team Lead Teddy Tzanetos put it, the helicopter has flown 1,250% of its expected flight hours, covering 2,214% of its expected distance!
NASA Ingenuity Helicopter, Mars, And Time…
And it’s still going, obviously. But the going gets tougher, because both the NASA rover and helicopter are now over less friendly Mars terrain. The two vehicles began their exploration at the mostly flat ground of the Jezero crater. But by now, they have climbed the crater’s western edge and will soon move beyond.
For this reason, the NASA Mars helicopter achieved a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 m) during its 50th flight. This flight added 145.7 seconds to Ingenuity’s flight log (yup, it has one) with the helicopter covering 322.2 meters (1,057 feet) horizontally. And for the team of scientists that are making all this possible, these recent flights are a relief for another reason.
Ingenuity is still braving the Martian winter. The worst part of that is behind it by now. But Mars has also thrown other challenges to the NASA helicopter, including sand storms. This meant that the fading winter light was combined with sand on its solar panel, limiting its energy.
Ingenuity normally needs some energy overnight, to keep its batteries warm. But for much of the Martian winter, it has had to shut down completely, with its team facing a nail-biting wait, to see if it wakes up again. This is also affecting the Perseverance rover, which has to wait for signals from the waking Ingenuity, each morning.
Through this time, the Mars helicopter needs to fly enough to keep up with the NASA rover. This is because the rover acts as a relay between the helicopter and Earth. After the worst of winter, Ingenuity got enough energy in its batteries for its 50th flight. But its team at NASA and JPL know that their helicopter will eventually have to… retire.
NASA and JPL didn’t select the components of the helicopter thinking that it could survive this long on Mars. Many of these components are off-the-shelf parts, including cameras and processors that would be more at home on a smartphone. This makes Ingenuity’s feats that much more impressive.
Along the way, the little helicopter has given NASA engineers ideas for more uses for such machines on Mars. One of the “jobs” of the Perseverance rover is to collect samples that a future mission will return to Earth. A future Mars Sample Return mission will land a machine on the red planet, to retrieve these samples from Perseverance. NASA now thinks that a future version of the Ingenuity helicopter could have a backup role, to move samples from Perseverance to the launch vehicle.
We don’t know when this future mission will take place. But it is something that NASA and Europe’s ESA have been after for years. And the success of the Ingenuity helicopter has given everyone ideas, about how to improve this and other future missions.
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