NASA designed the Ingenuity helicopter to be a mere technology demonstration, riding along with the Perseverance rover when it headed off to Mars in 2020. It was not even expected to survive its first winter, but today, the drone has completed 35 flights on the red planet and reached its highest altitude yet.
Mars has an atmosphere, but it’s less than one percent as dense as Earth’s and composed mostly of carbon dioxide. However, it’s possible to fly on Mars with the right design considerations. Ingenuity has a mass of 1.8 kilograms — that means it weighs 4 pounds on Earth but just 1.5 pounds on Mars. Its large 4-foot (1.2-meter) rotors give it enough lift to zip through the air on Mars.
Ingenuity rode to Mars mounted to the underside of Perseverance and was deployed on the surface shortly after landing. NASA completed the first Ingenuity flight in April 2021, and the helicopter has gone on to cover more than four and a half miles (over 7 kilometers) of distance across its 35 flights, with a total flight time just shy of an hour. In its most recent flight over the weekend, Ingenuity lifted off from Airfield X and set down in the same region just 49 feet (15 meters) away. However, the 52-second flight brought the robot to a record altitude of 46 feet (14 meters).
An all-time high for the #MarsHelicopter!
Ingenuity completed Flight 35 over the weekend and set a new max altitude record, hitting 46 ft (14 meters) above the Martian surface. See more stats in the flight log: https://t.co/7DMHj9LkNX pic.twitter.com/qAj5H9Z68C
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) December 6, 2022
NASA has long since moved beyond the technology demonstration phase of Ingenuity’s mission. It now uses the drone to gather data to improve future Mars helicopters and scout terrain for the Perseverance rover. The team even pushed a software update to Ingenuity late last month to add enhanced hazard avoidance and navigation features.
Ingenuity’s success could change the way we explore Mars. Unlike Perseverance, which was designed from the ground up with hardened, space-worthy hardware, Ingenuity is composed of off-the-shelf components, including a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor. And it’s still kicking after all this time. In fact, NASA has already started planning its next aerial adventure on Mars. The upcoming Mars Sample Return mission was supposed to include a rover, but NASA recently dropped the rover and added a pair of helicopters based on Ingenuity’s design. The sample return mission will launch in the late 2020s, and the samples could be back on Earth in 2033.