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Washington, April 15 – Originally tasked with only five test flights to prove its “pioneering” technology, NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter has completed its 50th flight on Mars, exceeding all expectations, the US space agency said.
The first rotorcraft ever to make powered flight beyond Earth reached the half-century mark on April 13, travelling over 322.2 metres in 145.7 seconds.
The helicopter also achieved a new altitude record of 18 metres before alighting near the 800-metre-wide “Belva Crater”.
The previous records were 23.3 kmph and 16 m, respectively achieved on its 49th flight on the Red Planet.
Ingenuity landed on the Red Planet in February 2021 attached to the belly of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover and will soon mark the two-year anniversary of its first flight, which took place on April 19, 2021.
Built with many off-the-shelf components, such as smartphone processors and cameras, Ingenuity is now 23 Earth months and 45 flights beyond its expected lifetime. The rotorcraft has flown for over 89 minutes and more than 11.6 km.
“When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at California, US.
“We have exceeded our expected cumulative flight time since our technology demonstration wrapped by 1,250 per cent and expected distance flown by 2,214 per cent.”
However, surpassing expectations comes at a cost – some helicopter components have shown signs of wear.
“We have come so far, and we want to go farther,” Tzanetos said.
“But we have known since the very beginning our time at Mars was limited, and every operational day is a blessing. Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now is something no one can predict at present. What I can predict is that when it does, we’ll have one heck of a party.”
In the coming days, the mini chopper will face more challenging terrain. Ingenuity will also fly at a greater frequency in the coming days because the helicopter needs to remain within electronic earshot of the rover. With its AutoNav capability, Perseverance can travel hundreds of metres each day.
“Ingenuity relies on Perseverance to act as a communications relay between it and mission controllers,” said Anderson. “If the rover gets too far ahead or disappears behind a hill, we could lose communications.”
Perseverance is currently headed to “Mount Julian”, which will provide a panoramic view into nearby Belva Crater.