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A Helicopter on Mars – Is the Ingenuity drone on Mars still working?

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Konrad Lippert
Konrad Lippert

ERC Teams Coordinator

“Is the Ingenuity drone on Mars still working?” is a popular question every space enthusiast asks. A few years ago, NASA surprised everyone by announcing that its next mission would include a helicopter on Mars. At the time of the announcement, the common belief was that you wouldn’t be able to fly there. Due to the Martian atmosphere being much thinner than on Earth, rendering the helicopter blades useless. What’s the current mission status? And how NASA worked out a Mars helicopter?

 

Ingenuity helicopter: How did NASA make it possible to fly on Mars?

Let’s start with the important distinction: no one in NASA questioned the possibility of making a flight on Mars a reality. Rather than presuming that’s impossible, designing a functioning Martian drone was faced as a challenge. A challenge for a team that doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Although the Ingenuity drone was brought to the red planet’s surface with the Perseverance rover, it had its own objectives to meet once landed:

  • To prove that Mars helicopter flight is possible.
  • To demonstrate miniaturized flight technology. It was necessary to shrink each part to have a chance for a successful lift-off in demanding conditions. The Ingenuity drone weighed only 4 pounds (1,8 kg)!
  • To prepare for later missions. It tested solar panels used to charge batteries, maintain temperature during cold nights, and autonomous operations.

 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS. 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.

 

While Perseverance was “busy” looking for signs of ancient life, Ingenuity Copter’s key objectives were to gather data about its performance. Such information was planned to  be used as reference to make decisions for future missions, which could potentially be more flight-focused.

Ingenuity drone design turned out to be spot-on. The First Mars helicopter was not only able to complete the planned five test flights. It achieved much more, and to this day, it has flown an impressive 72 times!

 

Is the Mars helicopter still working?

Unfortunately, the Ingenuity drone is not working anymore. After close to three years of operations, 72 flights, and sending plenty of valuable data about Martian aerodynamics limits back to Earth, the Ingenuity mission has ended. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said:

The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end. That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined and helped NASA do what we do best – make the impossible, possible. Through missions like Ingenuity, NASA is paving the way for future flight in our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond.

What happened? During the penultimate flight, the Ingenuity helicopter had to execute an emergency landing, which led NASA to lose its location. A short vertical flight on the 18th of January was aimed to help determine where it landed. Everything was fine until the last moments. During the descent, the Ingenuity drone lost communication with the rover. Communications were later re-established, but it was discovered that one of the rotor blades suffered damage, leading to the drone becoming inoperable. NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter mission officially ended on the 25th of January, 2024.

 

Legacy of the Ingenuity drone

While national space agencies’ resources are scarce and the next mission employing a drone might take a while to happen, squeezing every drop of knowledge possible is essential. NASA knows the importance of innovation in space exploration, which the Ingenuity mission has proven multiple times. During the mission, Ingenuity drone achieved plenty of valuable milestones, exceeding expectations. Here’s a rundown of the most important dates:

  • 3rd of April 2021: Landing on Mars.
  • 19th of April: First flight!
  • 25th of April: First photo of the rover.
  • 24th of July: First scouting flight.
  • 8th of April 2022: Flight distance record.
  • 19th of April: Photos of Perseverance Landing gear debris.
  • 5th of October 2023: Altitude record.
  • 12th of October: Ground Speed record.

 

During this time, the Ingenuity drone has completed 128,8 flying minutes, covered 10,5 miles (17 kilometers), and reached an altitude of 78,7 feet (24 meters).

 

Helicopter on Mars: What’s next?

Ingenuity helicopter on Mars sparked the imagination of every space and tech enthusiast worldwide.The influence of the Ingenuity can be seen not only in leading space agencies’ missions. It can be seen in the minds of the future generation of engineers looking up to the stars with admiration.

More and more focus is put on drone-related operations in education with the European Rover Challenge leading as an example. Since 2023, students participating in the ERC space robotics competition, apart from constructing a functional rover, are tasked with operating a drone to gather data from the above. You can read more about the ERC competition here.

 

 

Source: mars.nasa.gov

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