NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter has now logged 30 minutes of flying time in 17 flights, and recently completed its 18th one successfully!
Many roving vehicles have now driven on the surface of our neighbouring planet. They have increased our knowledge of Mars tremendously, whetting our appetite for more. But these vehicles have to work slowly. And selecting what areas to explore next, can be quite difficult – even with ever-improving satellite imagery.
This is where the idea of a Mars helicopter comes in. NASA has been proving this concept since the 19th of April when it flew for the first time. But it was only supposed to complete maybe five flights, that would be little more than short hops. The first one literally was one – the helicopter rose, hovered facing one way, then another, and landed.
A Mission-Capable Mars Helicopter
But what started as a proof of concept, that might one day lead to an operational helicopter on Mars, became one. Ingenuity completed its five scheduled flights successfully. Many opined that NASA had been playing down expectations, saying even one flight would have been a success. That may well have been the case – to some extent.
But many months have passed since. The Ingenuity Mars helicopter didn’t just continue flying. It also continued enduring the Martian landscape, with its temperature extremes and high wind conditions. Its little solar panel continued charging the helicopter’s battery, making future flights possible. And its data link with the Perseverance rover continued working – most of the time.
NASA’s JPL engineers that control Ingenuity weren’t completely sure that its 17th flight was a success. This flight took place on the 5th of December. The connection with Perseverance failed as the helicopter descended back onto the surface of Mars. It was a tense few days for the JPL engineers, but the stubborn little helicopter eventually sent some data packets to its mothership.
Onwards and Upwards
Later communications confirmed that Ingenuity was perfectly healthy and that its 17th flight was a complete success. This flight moved the Mars helicopter past the 30-minute flying time mark (30 mins and 48 secs). And the communications hiccup gave the team valuable information on how to avoid it in future flights. The next flight used a low data-rate mode, to help boost its signal strength.
Its engineers keep reminding everyone, and themselves, that this started off as a test aircraft, not an operational article! And yet, it has now scouted new areas, it has helped the team 3D-map new areas of interest for Perseverance and it has tested the limits of its own endurance and speed. But its most recent flight was more leisurely. It covered another 754 feet (230 metres), travelling at 5.6 mph (9km/h). It has already flown twice as fast as that!
As the Ingenuity Mars helicopter becomes more independent, and its team may be a bit bolder, we can’t help wondering what the future holds. What shape will future Martian helicopters have? What kind of new missions, sensors and tricks will they feature? And for how long will the trail-blazing Ingenuity continue to impress us?