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Wed, Apr 26, 2023

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Completes 50th Flight

Keep On Rockin’ on the Red World

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is a small robotic rotorcraft currently operating on Mars. The contraption was conveyed to the Red Planet slung to the underside of its more famous counterpart, the Perseverance rover. The two machines arrived on Mars 18 February 2021 after a seven-month spaceflight from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

Ingenuity’s maiden Martian flight—the first extraterrestrial flight undertaken by a human-made aircraft—took place on 19 April 2021. The historic occasion saw Ingenuity take-off vertically, hover, and land over a flight duration of 39.1 seconds.

On 13 April 2023, Ingenuity made its fiftieth flight, thereby marking 728 days of flightworthiness on barren, inhospitable Mars—all the while without maintenance, an annual inspection, or even so much as a cleaning.

During the 13 April mission, Ingenuity ascended to an altitude of 18-meters, a new Martian altitude record, and flew 322.2 meters. At the end of the 145.7-second flight, the wee helicopter landed near Mars’s Belva Crater.

Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Washington D.C. headquarters, stated: “Just as the Wright brothers continued their experiments well after that momentous day at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Ingenuity team continues to pursue and learn from the flight operations of the first aircraft on another world.”

Ingenuity’s next scheduled flight is a repositioning hop that will see the machine stationed for an upcoming series of exploratory junkets. NASA mission controllers are eyeing a region of Mars’s Jezero Crater called Fall River Pass.

Exploration of the aforementioned Jezero Crater, a 45-kilometer (diameter) feature of Mars’s Syrtis Major quadrangle thought to have once contained liquid water, is the primary objective of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission—to which the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are salient. As the crater may once have contained liquid water, NASA scientists posit it is among the best places on Mars to search for evidence of past life—likely microbial life, but life nonetheless.

In a number of Slavic languages, the word jezero means lake.

While it carries no life-detecting instruments, the Perseverance rover is eminently suited to study the geological and chemical characteristics of Mars’s surface.

Since landing on the planet in 2021, the rover has traveled some 17.5 kilometers, all the while studying and collecting samples of Martian regolith.

The Ingenuity helicopter’s upcoming 51st flight is slated to cover just over 180-meters over a period of 130-seconds. Like Perseverance, Ingenuity is proceeding in a westerly direction, gathering data and images as it goes.

In point of fact, Ingenuity was intended to be little more than a technology demonstrator, a prototype intended to fly only a few times for purpose of vetting component and system architectures. Nevertheless, the intrepid little machine, which comprises a surprising number of smartphone processors, cameras, and other off-the-shelf components, has soldiered on, overcoming time, wear, and even Mars’s ferocious dust storms.

As Ingenuity is a solar-powered craft, dust-buildup on its solar-panels is a particular—and particulate—hazard; as is the weak solar radiation characteristic of the Martian winter. However, now that summer has returned to Mars’s Syrtis Major quadrangle, Ingenuity will recharge more quickly and fly more frequently.

The resilience demonstrated to date by the Ingenuity helicopter has surprised and delighted the aircraft’s Earthbound controllers. Ingenuity team lead Teddy Tzanetos remarked: “When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights. We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250-percent and expected distance flown by 2,214%-percent.”

Notwithstanding fifty flights and the adulation of its stewards, Ingenuity is manifesting signs of wear and tear. Mr. Tzanetos added: “We have come so far, and we want to go farther; but we have known since the very beginning our time at Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now is something no one can predict at present. What I can predict is that when it does, we’ll have one heck of a party.”



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