Ingenuity flew for the first time on Mars on April 19, 2021, reaching a height of 10 feet (3 meters) and hovering for about half a minute before touching back down. That 39-second trip marked the first powered, controlled flight of a rotorcraft on another planet.
Since then, Ingenuity has surpassed all expectations, transitioning from a technology demonstration designed for five flights to an aerial scout for the Perseverance rover as it explores an ancient lake and river delta on Mars.
During its 50th flight, Ingenuity traveled over 1,057 feet (322.2 meters) in 145.7 seconds and achieved a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters). The chopper touched down near the 0.5-mile-wide (800-meter-wide) Belva 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 NASA Planetary Science Division, in a statement.
Since arriving on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021, Ingenuity has flown for more than 89 minutes and 7.1 miles (11.6 kilometers). That’s no mean feat considering that much of the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) chopper was built using off-the-shelf smartphone processors and cameras.
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250% and expected distance flown by 2,214%.”
A risky journey
The journey hasn’t been easy, but Ingenuity has “proven very robust so far,” Tzanetos told CNN. The rotorcraft has faced numerous challenges since it first detached from the belly of the Perseverance rover more than two years ago.
The dangerous chill of Martian winter and its solar panel-blocking dust storms have passed, but the chopper’s power supply still drops at night.
Each morning, the Helicopter Base Station on the Perseverance rover searches for Ingenuity’s signal around the time the chopper is expected to “wake up,” waiting for a sign that its aerial scout is still functioning.
But Ingenuity’s solar panels, batteries and rotor system are healthy. The chopper is “still doing fantastic,” Tzanetos said. “We’re looking forward to just keep pushing that envelope.”
Since the helicopter left the flat floor of Jezero Crater and headed to the river delta in January, its flights have only grown more challenging. Ingenuity has flown over uncharted and rugged terrain with landing spots surrounded by potential hazards.
“We are not in Martian Kansas anymore,” said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at JPL, in a statement.
“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.”
Ingenuity’s team is already planning its next set of flights because the chopper has to remain at the right distance to stay in touch with the fast-moving rover, which can drive for hundreds of meters in a single day.
“Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to act as a communications relay between it and mission controllers here at JPL,” Anderson said. “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.”
The Perseverance rover is moving on from an area that could contain hydrated silica, which might have information about a warmer, wetter Martian past and any potential signs of life from billions of years ago. Up next is Mount Julian, a site that will provide the rover with a panoramic view into Belva Crater.
Ingenuity’s journey has demonstrated how useful aircraft can be on space missions, scouting places that rovers can’t go or helping plot a safe path to the next destination. The little chopper’s data has also provided engineers with a treasure trove as they work on future Mars helicopters, including two that could play a role in helping return samples collected by Perseverance to Earth.
The helicopter team continues to monitor Ingenuity’s health closely as some of its components begin to show signs of wear and tear.
“We have come so far, and we want to go farther,” Tzanetos said. “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.”