NASA's Mars helicopter has proved time and time again that flight on the Red Planet is possible, and now Ingenuity is closing in on a historic milestone.
Ingenuity landed on Mars with its companion rover, Perseverance, in February 2021, and just two months later, in April, the small aircraft became the very first machine to achieve powered flight in the skies of a planet that isn't Earth. NASA engineers sent Ingenuity to Mars as a technology demonstration. The objective was to see if an aircraft was able to fly on Mars, a planet that has an atmosphere very different from Earth. Notably, Mars' atmosphere is 1% as thick as Earth's, meaning to achieve flight, the aircraft would have to spin its blades much faster than a typical helicopter.
The problem of a thin atmosphere was anticipated by NASA engineers, and the appropriate design changes were made. Ingenuity features special counter-rotating blades that spin at approximately 2,500 revolutions per minute (RPM). For context, a typical helicopter spins its blade at just 400 to 500 RPM to maintain flight. This difference between RPM illustrates the severe difference in flight on Earth and flight on Mars.
Despite these challenges, NASA engineers hit the nail on the head, and Ingenuity performed its first aerial flight in April 2021, and just three days after the initial up-and-down flight, the Mars helicopter conducted its first lateral flight, moving just 13 feet across the Martian surface at an altitude of 16 feet. Since then, Ingenuity has launched off the surface of Mars numerous times, stacking up forty-eight successful flights, with the most recent taking place on March 23, 2023.
NASA took to its social media channels to announce that Flight 48 was successful, with Ingenuity climbing to an altitude of 39 feet, traveling 1,305 feet, and staying airborne for 149.9 seconds. Ingenuity is just two flights away from achieving fifty successful flights, a massive milestone for the rotorcraft to have under its belt. Since Ingenuity's main objective was to achieve flight, which it has succeeded in beyond all expectations, the rotorcraft's new mission is to be a scout for its companion rover, Perseverance.
Ingenuity is being used by NASA teams to scout ahead of Perseverance and capture valuable footage of the terrain. From this footage, officials are able to identify any valuable scientific prospects, identify any potentially hazardous objects, photo opportunities, and, overall, plan out a strategic path for the rover.
The achievements of Ingenuity will go down in history, and the success of the small helicopter cannot go understated. In fact, NASA liked Ingenuity's design so much that the space agency changed its plan Mars sample return plan to include two Ingenuity-like helicopters to act as a backup transportation method in the event that Perseverance can't fulfill its mission.