It was only supposed to fly five times. And yet NASA’s helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity, has completed 12 flights and it isn’t ready to retire.
Given its stunning and unexpected success, the US space agency has extended Ingenuity’s mission indefinitely.
The tiny helicopter has become the regular travel companion of the rover Perseverance, whose core mission is to seek signs of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team. “We’re doing better on the surface than we had expected.”
Hundreds of people contributed to the project, though only about a dozen currently retain day-to-day roles. Ravich joined the team five years ago.
“When I got the opportunity to come work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as anybody else: ‘Is that even possible?’”
His initial doubts were understandable: The air on Mars has a density equivalent to only one percent that of Earth’s atmosphere. By way of comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars would be like flying one in the thin air nearly 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Earth.
Nor was it easy getting to Mars in the first place. Ingenuity had to withstand the initial shock of takeoff from Earth, and then of the February 18 landing on the red planet following a seven-month voyage through space, strapped to the rover’s belly.
Once in its new surroundings, the tiny (four pound, or 1.8 kilogram) copter has had to survive the glacial cold of Martian nights, drawing warmth from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. And its flights are guided using an array of sensors, since the 15-minute lag in communications from Earth makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity carried out its maiden flight, making history as the first motorized craft to fly on another planet.
Exceeding all expectations, it has gone on to fly 11 more times. “We’ve actually been able to handle winds greater than we had expected,” Ravich told AFP.
“I think by flight three we had actually accomplished all of our engineering goals … (and) got all the information we had hoped to get,” said Ravich, who works for NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which developed the helicopter.—APP