On the 403rd Sol (a Martian day) since Perseverance successfully landed on the surface of Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter attempted its most ambitious flight yet, setting new personal records for speed and distance. It achieved a groundspeed of over 12 miles per hour and traveled a horizontal distance of 2,310 feet. The personal bests came just days before the one-year anniversary since the small helicopter first took off on the Red Planet. Ingenuity has exceeded expectations and continues to operate well beyond the one-month lifespan it was designed for.

Aerial image of the surface of Mars captured by Ingenuity during flight. (Courtesy of NASA)

The Mars Helicopter technology demonstration, later named Ingenuity, achieved the first powered flight on another planet on April 19, 2021, when it rose vertically 10 feet and returned to its takeoff point. Ingenuity landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, stowed on the underside of the Mars Perseverance rover. In a rare decision for Mars missions, NASA and the rover team agreed to designate 30 days of precious surface operations time for Ingenuity to conduct test flights while the rover provided documentation and support from a fixed nearby position. Four increasingly challenging flights occurred during the remainder of April; the fourth flight involved departure and return covering a horizontal distance of 873 feet. Analogous to the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903, the first four flights of Ingenuity clearly demonstrated that a powered machine could fly under control in the thin Martian atmosphere. The fourth flights in both cases were particularly significant.

The fourth flights by both the Wrights and Ingenuity (see Ingenuity's flight log below) were clear demonstrations that both vehicles operated under complete control, covering substantial (and comparable) distances and durations. (Smithsonian Institution)

NASA and the rover team were sufficiently impressed during the technology demonstration period that the role of Ingenuity was officially changed to provide direct support to the Perseverance mission.  Beginning with the fifth flight, Ingenuity no longer returned to its launch point. The two cameras on Ingenuity now provided information not available from orbit along the route that the rover mission planners intended to follow. This change from a technology demonstration to a mission support role is the best evidence of the great scientific and engineering value obtained from a flying vehicle operating in conjunction with a rover on Mars.  As of April 19, 2022, (the one-year anniversary of Ingenuity’s first flight from the surface of the Red Planet) the Mars Helicopter has completed 25 flights.

Ingenuity’s flight log as of April 8, 2022. (Courtesy of NASA)

At no later time we be able to witness the first controlled powered flights carried out on another planetary body. Ingenuity really does represent a Wright brothers’ moment in aviation history, but one that did not occur on Earth. After this colossal milestone in the history of flight and space exploration, there will likely be more flying vehicles on other planetary surfaces. But, there will never again be another opportunity to celebrate the first ‘off-Earth’ flights. For this momentous achievement, the Ingenuity team received the 2022 Michael Collins Trophy for Current Achievement.

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is 1.6 feet (49 cm) in height, 4 feet (1.2 m) in width (across two propellers), and weighs 4 pounds (1.8 kg) on Earth (1.5 pounds on Mars). (Courtesy of NASA)
Related Topics Vertical flight Space Robotics Solar System
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