A lot has happened in the air on Mars since April 19, 2021. That was the day when NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter first lifted off from the dusty ground and proved that powered, controlled flight was possible on another planet. This week, NASA is celebrating an almost unfathomable milestone: 100 minutes of flight on Mars.
One hundred minutes. Ingenuity could have watched classic movie Casablanca with that time, but it spent those minutes in the Martian air. The solar-powered rotorcraft passed the mark over the weekend during its 57th flight on September 3. NASA JPL celebrated with a triumphant tweet and an image showing Ingenuity’s shadow on the rocky surface.
The helicopter hitched a ride with the Perseverance rover and arrived at the Jezero Crater on Mars in early 2021. NASA classified Ingenuity as a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. It was meant as an experiment. Would it even be able to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars? Would it survive the dust, wind and cold? The Ingenuity team originally planned for a five-flight demonstration. The plucky rotorcraft has since exceeded all expectations.
NASA keeps a running tally of Ingenuity’s exploits in a flight log. Current stats after Flight 57 show Ingenuity has covered 43,081 feet over 6,143 seconds of flight time (102.4 minutes). Its highest altitude was about 59 feet off the ground. It reached a top speed of 14.5 mph.
It hasn’t all been smooth flying. The helicopter has weathered glitches, software updates, rough environmental conditions and hazardous terrain.
Ingenuity brings a new perspective to Mars exploration efforts. After proving it could fly, NASA expanded the camera-equipped helicopter’s mission to include scouting activities to assist the Perseverance rover. Aerial views can help the rover team spot interesting landscape features and look out for obstacles that may be the rover’s path as it moves around on Mars. The two explorers stay within range of each other. Perseverance even captured a rare portrait of its flying companion in early August.
Ingenuity has been so successful that NASA added helicopters to its future Mars Sample Return mission. Perseverance is currently gathering pieces of Mars and placing them in tubes that can be transported back to Earth for closer study. MSR is the ambitious plan to send a spacecraft to Mars to pick up those rock samples.
The MSR helicopters could help out by transporting tubes across Mars, carrying them from where the rover deposited them on the ground to where the MSR lander is located. This is all in service of a grand goal to understand whether or not Mars might have once hosted microbial life. Perseverance is a high-tech rolling laboratory, but it’s not equipped to make a definitive call on the existence of ancient life on a distant planet. For that, we need Mars rocks in labs on Earth.
Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk had this to say on the day of Ingenuity’s historic first flight back in 2021: “We don’t know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky—at least on Mars—may not be the limit.” Over two years later, Ingenuity has led us across thousands of feet of Mars. It’s opened up a new dimension in space exploration. And it’s not done yet.
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