It was only to fly five times. Still, NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity has completed 12 flights and is not ready to retire.
Given its surprising and unexpected success, the US space agency extended Ingenuity’s mission indefinitely.
The tiny helicopter has become the regular traveling companion of the Perseverance rover, whose main mission is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, head of the mechanical engineering team at Ingenuity. “We are doing better on the surface than we expected.”
Hundreds of people contributed to the project, although only about a dozen currently retain day-to-day functions.
Ravich joined the team five years ago.
“When I had the opportunity to work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as everyone else: ‘Is this possible?'”
His initial doubts were understandable: the air on Mars has a density equivalent to just one percent of Earth’s atmosphere. By way of comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars would be like flying one in the air about 20 miles (30 kilometers) above the Earth.
Nor was it easy to get to Mars in the first place. The ingenuity had to withstand the initial shock of taking off from Earth and then landing on February 18 on the red planet after a seven-month voyage through space, strapped to the belly of the rover.
Once in its new surroundings, the tiny helicopter (1.8 kg) had to survive the glacial cold of Martian nights, extracting heat from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. And its flights are guided by a series of sensors, as the 15-minute delay in Earth’s communications makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity made its first flight, making history as the first powered spacecraft to fly on another planet.
Exceeding all expectations, he flew 11 more times.
“We were actually able to handle bigger winds than we expected,” Ravich told AFP.
“I think on flight three we had actually met all of our engineering goals … (and) got all the information we were hoping to get,” said Ravich, who works for NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who developed the helicopter.
Since then, Ingenuity has flown up to 12 meters (39 feet) and its last flight lasted two minutes and 49 seconds. In all, he covered a distance of 2.5 kilometers.
In May, Ingenuity flew its first unilateral mission, landing outside the relatively flat “airfield” that had been carefully selected as its initial home.
But not everything went well. His sixth flight brought some excitement.
After being dangerously unbalanced by a malfunction that affected the photos taken in flight to help it stabilize, the small ship was able to recover. He landed safe and sound, and the problem was resolved.
Ingenuity is now being sent to explore the path to Perseverance, using his high-resolution color camera.
The objective is twofold: to trace a path for the rover that is safe, but also of scientific interest, mainly in geological terms.
Ken Farley, who heads Perseverance’s science team, explained how photos taken by Ingenuity during its 12th flight showed that a region dubbed the South Seitha was of less interest than scientists had expected.
As a result, the rover may not be sent there.
After more than six months on the red planet, the small drone-like spacecraft has gained more and more followers on Earth, appearing in coffee cups and T-shirts sold online.
What explains its longevity?
“The environment has cooperated a lot so far: the temperatures, the wind, the sun, the dust in the air… It’s still very cold, but it could have been much worse,” said Ravich.
In theory, the helicopter should be able to continue operating for some time. But the approaching Martian winter will be a challenge.
NASA engineers, now armed with Ingenuity flight data, are already working on their next-generation successors.
“Something in the 20 to 30 kg range (range), maybe, capable of carrying science payloads,” Ravich said.
These future payloads may only include the rock samples collected by Perseverance.
NASA is planning to retrieve these samples during a future mission – sometime in the 2030s.