Ingenuity’s Martian Feat: NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Poised to Break Distance Record on Lastest Flight

The little chopper will cover more than half a mile of Martian ground on Saturday (Dec. 9), if all goes according to plan.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter acquired this image using its high-resolution color camera on its 66th Red Planet flight, which occurred on Nov. 3, 2023. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is poised to set yet another record this weekend.

The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity, the first robot ever to explore the skies of a world beyond Earth, is scheduled to make its 68th Red Planet flight on Saturday (Dec. 9).

The plan calls for Ingenuity to cover 2,717 feet (828 meters) of Mars ground — more than half a mile — during the sortie, mission team members wrote in a preview today (Dec. 8). That’s considerably farther than the helicopter’s current distance record of 2,310 feet (704 m), which was set in April 2022, on its 25th flight.

Ingenuity landed on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater with NASA’s Perseverance rover in February 2021, tasked with showing that aerial exploration is possible on Mars despite the planet’s thin atmosphere.

The little rotorcraft did just that over the course of five flights during the spring of 2021, then was granted an extended mission that continues to this day. Ingenuity is now serving as a scout for Perseverance, which is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth.

Saturday’s planned flight will target a top speed of 22.4 mph (36 kph), mission team members wrote in the preview. That would tie Ingenuity’s velocity record, which was set this past October. The coming hop will last 147 seconds and take the chopper a maximum of 33 feet (10 m) above Mars’ red dirt.

Those latter two figures won’t set any new marks; Ingenuity has soared as high as 79 feet (24 m) and stayed aloft for 169.5 seconds at a time, according to the mission’s flight log.

Over the course of its 67 Mars flights, Ingenuity has racked up a total of 121 minutes of air time and covered about 9.5 miles (15.3 kilometers) of ground.

How NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity can fly on the Red Planet

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter flying on the Red Planet. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Flying on Mars is far from a breeze, but NASA is confident that its little helicopter is up to the challenge.

That 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper, named Ingenuity, landed with the agency’s Perseverance rover on Feb. 18 and is gearing up to make the first-ever powered, controlled flights on a world beyond Earth. If all goes according to plan, Ingenuity will get its Wright Brothers moment on Sunday (April 11).

That first flight will be low and brief; the solar-powered Mars helicopter Ingenuity is expected to get no higher than 10 feet (3 meters) above the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater and stay aloft for 40 seconds or so, mission team members have said. But even pulling off such a modest hop would be an achievement, given that the Martian atmosphere is just 1% as thick as that of Earth at sea level

Rotorcraft generate lift by pushing air. And on Mars, “there are less molecules, basically, to push,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said during a news conference on Friday (April 9).

That disadvantage outweighs the benefits aircraft receive from Mars’ weaker gravitational pull, which is 38% as strong as the tug we feel on Earth’s surface. So Ingenuity must do things a bit differently than its terrestrial counterparts.

For example, the Mars chopper’s custom-made, carbon-fiber blades are exceptionally large compared to its 19-inch-tall (48 centimeters) body. The blades are arranged into two rotors, each of which stretches 4 feet (1.2 m) from tip to tip.

And those rotors will spin at about 2,500 revolutions per minute (RPM) to get Ingenuity off the ground — far faster than would be required for a 4-lb. helicopter here on Earth, Aung said. (For perspective: The rotors of light passenger helicopters spin at about 450 RPM during normal flight.)

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is seen on the surface of the Red Planet by the perseverance rover on April 5, 2021.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

Mars imposes other challenges as well, such as bone-chilling cold. Perseverance has measured nighttime temperatures as low as minus 117.4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 83 degrees Celsius) on Jezero’s floor, so Ingenuity has a heater to keep itself from freezing.

And then there’s the distance and isolation. It currently takes more than 15 minutes for a command beamed from mission control here on Earth to reach Mars. Operating Ingenuity in real time with a joystick is therefore not an option; flight commands must be sent in advance.

This graphic shows the general activities the team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter hopes to accomplish on a given test flight on the Red Planet.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

That’s not to suggest that Ingenuity is mindless, however; the little rotorcraft can do a lot on its own. For example, it will get its bearings during flight by analyzing photos snapped by its downward-facing navigation camera.

Those images will be black-and-white, but Ingenuity also sports a 13-megapixel color imager, whose shots should be very crowd-pleasing once they come down to Earth.

The cameras, power system, avionics, communications equipment to relay data to Perseverance — there’s a lot of complex gear packed into Ingenuity’s small body, even though the chopper doesn’t carry any scientific instruments. (It’s a technology demonstrator designed to show that powered flight on Mars is feasible.)

There’s so much gear, in fact, that a Mars helicopter mission like this wasn’t possible until recently, when electronics became sufficiently miniaturized.

“All of it together, to be that light — we just couldn’t do it 15 or 20 years ago,” Aung said.


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