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As it nears its two-year anniversary on the planet, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has completed its 50th flight on Mars. The 50th flight was completed on April 13, 2023, when Ingenuity traveled over 1,057 feet (322 meters) in 145.7 seconds.
On its 50th flight, Ingenuity achieved a new altitude record of 59 feet (18 meters) before settling near the Belva Crater. NASA plans to have the helicopter perform another repositioning flight before it begins exploring the “Fall River Pass” region of the Jezero Crater.
Tomorrow marks the two-year anniversary of Ingenuity’s first flight on Mars, which took place on April 19, 2021. The helicopter was originally designed as a technology demonstration that would fly no more than five times. Now, its 23 Earth months and 45 flights beyond its expected lifetime, and has transformed into an operations demonstration.
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at JPL, said. “We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250% and expected distance flown by 2,214%.”
NASA has been so encouraged by Ingenuity’s success that it decided to swap out its Sample Fetch Rovers for two drones, similar to the Ingenuity helicopter, to serve as backups to the Perseverance Rover in the Mars Sample Return Campaign.
These helicopters are expected to make it to the surface of Mars in 2030, and will step in if Perseverance is unable to travel to the lander. Each helicopter will be equipped with mobility wheels on its landing legs and one robotic arm. NASA plans for them to fly to the rover if it gets stuck, use their robotic arms to retrieve a sample, and then fly the sample back to the lander.
Each of Ingenuity’s flights provides valuable flight data that will be used by engineers working on the designs for future Mars helicopters. The helicopter has been tackling increasingly rougher terrain this year since it left the Jazero Crater’s floor in January.
“We are not in Martian Kansas anymore,” Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “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.”