Ingenuity Mars helicopter celebrates 50 flights with new altitude record
The first aircraft to fly on another planet has hit a new milestone. NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has recently clocked up its 50th flight, and achieved a new altitude record in the process.
The historic flight was made on April 13, when the little chopper took off on a journey that carried it 322.2 m (1,057.1 ft) over two minutes and 25 seconds. That same trip also took Ingenuity to a height of 18 m (59 ft) above the Martian surface, marking a new altitude record. Over those 50 flights, the helicopter has now clocked a total flight time of almost 90 minutes and traveled more than 11.6 km (7.2 miles).
Those achievements are made even more impressive by the fact that Ingenuity was never expected to make them. The aircraft was designed to demonstrate that powered, controlled flight was possible on another planet – even one with a much thinner atmosphere and weaker gravity than Earth – and it was hoped to do that in as little as five flights.
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead. “We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250% and expected distance flown by 2,214%.”
This extra distance is taking the aircraft into uncharted territory. The floor of Jezero Crater was relatively flat, but now Ingenuity and its companion, the Perseverance rover, are moving into a region known as Fall River Pass, which might prove a bit more hazardous.
“We are not in Martian Kansas anymore,” said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead. “We’re flying over the dried-up remnants of an ancient river that is filled with sand dunes, boulders, and rocks, and surrounded by hills that could have us for lunch. And while we recently upgraded the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still a white-knuckler.”
It’s safe to say the technology demonstration has proved successful, showing how aircraft could be used to scout paths ahead for rovers. Exactly how much longer Ingenuity could keep taking to the skies is unknown, however.
“We have come so far, and we want to go farther,” said Tzanetos. “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.”
A video celebrating Ingenuity’s 50th flight can be seen below.
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