NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was designed to fly just five times, but last week the little rotorcraft that could clocked up its 50th flight in the red planet’s thin atmosphere.
Flight 50 departed Airfield Lambda on April 13th and required 145.7 seconds to reach Airfield Mu, a 322-meter flight at a brisk 4.6 meters per second, cruising at a new height record of 18 meters above Martian soil.
On The Register’s analysis of NASA’s flight log Ingenuity’s records are:
- Longest duration flight – 169.5 seconds on August 16th, 2021, during flight 12
- Longest distance – 704 meters on April 8th, 2022, during flight 25
- Fastest flight – 6.5 meters per second on April 2nd, 2023, during flight 49
- Total flight time – 5,349.9 seconds, or just over 89 minutes
- Total horizontal flight distance – 11,546 meters
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at JPL, in a blog post celebrating the 50th flight . “We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250 percent and expected distance flown by 2,214 percent.”
The Ingenuity team is now planning a 51st flight to bring the ‘copter close to the “Fall River Pass” region of Jezero Crater. Future flights will head towards “Mount Julian,” from where the craft will enjoy panoramic views of the nearby Belva Crater, an 800-metre dent in Mars’ surface.
“We are not in Martian Kansas anymore,” stated Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in the abovementioned blog post. “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.”
The 50th flight post states “Ingenuity will also fly at a greater frequency in the coming days because the helicopter needs to remain within electronic earshot of the [Perseverance ] 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.”
The desire for the helicopter to lead the rover reflects the craft’s evolution from experiment to forward scout, a role that’s proven so useful NASA now often suggests rotorcraft will accompany future planetary probes. The agency already plans to launch another ‘copter, the “Dragonfly” that’s expected to reach Jovian moon Titan in 2034 after leaving Earth in 2026.
Back on Mars, NASA is using Ingenuity’s success to consider the role of helicopters in its plan to bring samples gathered by Perseverance back to Earth. ®