NASA’s Mars Helicopter Aces 50th Flight – “We’re Not in Mars Kansas Anymore”

In this illustration, NASA’s Intelligent Mars Helicopter rests on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible at left) rolls by. It completed its 50th flight on April 13, 2023, flying over 1,057 feet and reaching a record altitude of 59 feet. Initially designed for just five flights, Intelligence has exceeded expectations, providing invaluable flight data and images for future Mars missions. Although some elements show signs of wear and tear, the intelligence mission continues to push the limits of technology and exploration on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

History-making rotorcraft have recently been negotiating some of the most dangerous terrain encountered on the Red Planet.

Mars Helicopter marked its 50th flight on April 13, 2023, achieving new altitude and distance records. Despite facing challenging terrain and increased frequency of flights, Ingenuity continues to provide valuable data for future Mars missions.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has completed its 50th flight on Mars. The first aircraft on another world reached the half-century mark on April 13, traveling over 1,057.09 feet (322.2 meters) in 145.7 seconds. The helicopter also achieved a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters) before alighting near the half-mile-wide (800-meter-wide) “Belva Crater.”

Ingenuity at Airfield D

Ingenuity at Airfield D: This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The location, “Airfield D” (the fourth airfield), is just east of the “Séítah” geologic unit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

With Flight 50 in the mission logbook, the helicopter team plans to perform another repositioning flight before exploring the “Fall River Pass” region of Jezero Crater.

“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,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter made history on April 19, 2021 when it achieved the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. Two years later, on April 13, 2023, it completed its 50th flight. Here are some highlights of a rotorcraft trip to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/[{” attribute=””>JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Ingenuity landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and will soon mark the two-year anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19, 2021. Designed as a technology demonstration that would fly no more than five times, the helicopter was intended to prove powered, controlled flight on another planet was possible. But Ingenuity exceeded expectations and transitioned into being an operations demonstration.

Every time Ingenuity goes airborne, it covers new ground and offers a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve. Imagery from the helicopter has not only demonstrated how aircraft could serve as forward scouts for future planetary expeditions, but it has even come in handy for the Perseverance team.

Teddy Zanetos of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides an update on the agency’s ingenious Mars Helicopter and discusses how it could inspire future aerial exploration of the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By testing the helicopter’s limits, engineers are collecting flight data that can be used by engineers working on designs for future Mars helicopters. That includes the proposed designers of the Mars sample return campaign Model rescue helicopters.

Dangerous terrain

Since leaving the relatively flat confines of Jezero Crater’s floor on January 19, Ingenuity has flown 11 times, setting new speed and altitude records of 14.5 mph (6.5 meters per second) and 59 feet (18 meters).

Despite winter’s deep cold and regional dust events (which can block the sun’s rays from reaching the helicopter’s solar panel), the ingenuity continues. It will be brown in color at night. As a result, the Helicopter base station The rover is to look for the rotorcraft signal at the time the ingenuity is predicted to rise each morning. As the helicopter flies, it must now navigate rough and relatively uncharted terrain, landing in places fraught with danger.

NASA’s Intelligent Mars Helicopter is seen here at the starting point of its 47th flight to Mars. The video was taken on March 9, 2023 by the MastCam-Z imager aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

“We’re not in Mars Kansas anymore,” said Josh Anderson, who leads intelligence operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We’re flying over the dry remains of an ancient river surrounded by sand dunes, boulders and rocks and surrounded by lunch-worthy mountains. Although we’ve recently upgraded navigation software to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still white-knuckle.”

A frequent flyer

Besides facing more challenging terrain, Ingenuity will fly more frequently in the coming days because the helicopter will need to stay within earshot of the rover’s electronics. With its AutoNav capability, Perseverance can travel hundreds of meters every day.

“Intelligence relies on persistence to act as a communication relay between mission controllers at JBL,” Anderson said. “If the rover gets too far ahead or disappears behind a mountain, we can lose communications. The rover team has a job to do and a schedule. So, ingenuity is essential and at the forefront whenever possible.

Perseverance recently completed an inspection of the “Foul Tricorn,” a science target that may contain hydrated silica (which has strong astronomical interest). It is currently heading towards “Mount Julian” which will offer a panoramic view of the nearby Belwa crater.

NASA Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars

A rendering of NASA’s intelligent helicopter on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

feats of ingenuity

Built with several off-the-shelf components such as smartphone apps and cameras, Ingenuity is now 23 Earth months and 45 flights beyond its expected lifetime. The rotorcraft flew 7.1 miles (11.6 kilometers) over 89 minutes.

“When we first flew, we thought we were incredibly lucky to get five flights out,” said Teddy Tsanetos, JPL’s Ingenuity team leader. “We exceeded our expected overall flight time as our technical demonstration was 1,250% and expected distance was 2,214%.”

Exceeding such expectations, however, comes at a cost. The cognitive team recognizes that every major mission must eventually come to an end, as some helicopter components show signs of wear and tear and the terrain becomes more challenging. “We’ve come so far and we want to go farther,” Zanetos said. “But we knew from the beginning that our time on Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or in a few months is something that nobody can predict right now. What I predict is that when it does, We will have a big party.

Ingenuity begins to spin its blades

NASA’s Intelligent Helicopter performs a slow spin test of its blades on April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol. This image was captured by the navigation cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More about ingenuity

JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) developed the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter and oversees the program on behalf of NASA headquarters. The effort is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, along with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Companies such as AeroVironment Inc., Qualcomm and SolAero also contributed their expertise in designing and supplying key automotive components. The Mars Helicopter Delivery System was designed and manufactured by Lockheed Space Corporation.

Dave Lavery, who heads the Intelligent Mars Helicopter Program at NASA headquarters, serves as the program administrator.

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