It’s been a busy year on Mars for NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, and it’s not about to slow down now. After 21 flights, the aircraft is still in excellent condition, so NASA has extended its mission through at least September.
Ingenuity arrived on the red planet with NASA’s Perseverance rover on February 18, 2021. Its original mission was simply to demonstrate the ability to fly a helicopter in Mars’ thin atmosphere. After three successful flights proving the technology — and marking the first powered flight on another planet — NASA shifted Ingenuity into an operational mode with a further two flights. Since then, the helicopter has performed 16 flights, further testing its capabilities while helping Perseverance navigate Jezero Crater, but now it’s onto a new mission: to explore the Jezero river delta.
“The Jezero river delta campaign will be the biggest challenge the Ingenuity team faces since first flight at Mars,” Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release.
The region is hazardous for both Ingenuity and Perseverance, as it’s filled with “jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets that could stop a rover in its tracks (or upend a helicopter upon landing),” per the release. But that only gives Ingenuity a greater opportunity to demonstrate its scouting skills. The helicopter’s observations will not only affect Perseverance’s upcoming route, but also its science missions as it searches for evidence of microbial life on Mars, taking core samples that could be returned to Earth one day. Plus, the data from Ingenuity’s flights will inform the design of the next generation of Mars vehicles.
“Less than a year ago we didn’t even know if powered, controlled flight of an aircraft at Mars was possible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Now, we are looking forward to Ingenuity’s involvement in Perseverance’s second science campaign.”
Ingenuity is currently one leg into at least a three-part series of flights that will take the aircraft from its original flight area across a region known as the Séítah, after which it’ll start exploring the Jezero river delta. Its next flight can happen any day now.
“This upcoming flight will be my 22nd entry in our logbook,” Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip of JPL said in a press release. “I remember thinking when this all started, we’d be lucky to have three entries and immensely fortunate to get five. Now, at the rate we’re going, I’m going to need a second book.”
Perhaps NASA shouldn’t be so surprised. The agency’s Mars rovers have all had phenomenal life spans that greatly exceed their original mission durations — at times by thousands of Martian sols — so it’s only fair that Ingenuity follows suit.