NASA's Mars Helicopter Just Passed a Major Milestone, Far Exceeding The Mission's Original Goals


Ingenuity's first take off and landing on Mars, 19 April 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

The little helicopter that could has once again proven its worth.

On Saturday, NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, a tissue-box-sized rotorcraft that landed with the Perseverance rover in February, flew for the tenth time over the red planet.

Each flight of Ingenuity has been more audacious than the one before it. So Saturday's flight was probably the helicopter's riskiest yet: If everything went according to plan, Ingenuity would climb 40 feet (12 metres) in the air, then fly south-by-southwest toward a group of rock formations known as "Raised Ridges," before looping back around to a landing zone about 310 feet (94 metres) west of its takeoff point.

Ingenuity had previously flown about one mile before Saturday, so its tenth flight aided it in reaching that goal.

The flight was supposed to last about 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Ingenuity is expected to have visited ten different waypoints throughout that period, taking images along the way.

Flight 10 is a notable achievement, since Ingenuity has now flown twice as many times as NASA engineers had anticipated. As it strained the limits of its speed and endurance, NASA expected Ingenuity to crash on its fourth or fifth trip.

The ground track and waypoints for Ingenuity's 10th flight, Jezero Crater, Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Ingenuity, on the other hand, has continued to outperform expectations. Even when a problem caused the chopper to wobble mid-flight during its sixth flight in May, it safely landed.

The drone began as a technical demonstration, but after its fourth flight in late May, NASA granted Ingenuity a secondary purpose. Ingenuity has been researching new Martian terrain and testing activities that NASA may want to do with future space helicopters since then. Ingenuity has recently flown through Mars' Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) impact basin that was filled with water some 3.5 billion years ago, landing in fresh locations each time.

Ingenuity faces a hurdle in the uneven landscape, as rocky or rippling land might distort its field of view, forcing it to wander in the wrong direction. NASA scientists described Ingenuity's ninth mission earlier this month as a "nail-biter" because the helicopter had to navigate extremely dangerous terrain.

On Mars, ingenuity is still proving helpful, but its future is questionable.

Ingenuity's first four flights resulted in the rotorcraft landing in the same location from which it took off. It landed on a new airfield on its fifth flight, which it had previously flown over, photographed, and mapped. However, Ingenuity's most recent trips have taken her south, into new terrain.


Ingenuity captured a photo of its shadow during its 7th flight on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA engineers have not stated when Ingenuity's mission will finish, but the helicopter could continue to fly as long as it remains alive and does not interfere with the Perseverance rover's science activities.

Perseverance is scouring Jezero Crater for possible ancient extraterrestrial microbial remains. Ingenuity's new operations can help with that mission: the helicopter can explore and map the landscape, discover good study locations from the air, and fly to places where the rover can't go.


"Raised Ridges" are of great interest to NASA scientists because water may have flowed there in the past. Ingenuity also captured colour photographs of interesting rock outcrops for Perseverance to investigate later during its ninth flight.

In a recent blog post, NASA scientists noted, "We're hopeful the colour photographs will provide the closest look yet at 'Pilot Pinnacle,' a region exhibiting outcrops that some team members believe may record some of the deepest water habitats in historic Lake Jezero."

Perseverance's tight timetable may prevent it from visiting the rocks, thus "Ingenuity may give the only opportunity to explore these deposits in any depth," according to the experts.

Business Insider originally published this article.

Post a Comment