One year ago, Ingenuity took its first flight on Mars. And its story since is that of a real-world little helicopter that could.
Ingenuity traveled to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, and both arrived in Jezero crater last February (SN: 2/17/21). About six weeks later, the helicopter began what was meant to be only a 30-day technology demonstration to see if flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere.
It proved it could fly — and then some (SN: 4/19/21). Over the next couple weeks, Ingenuity took four more flights, each time going a bit farther, a bit faster and a bit higher. After those first test flights, Ingenuity’s mission morphed from a technology demonstration to operations, helping Perseverance traverse the surface by scouting the terrain ahead (SN: 4/30/21; SN: 12/10/21).
Before the helicopter arrived, scientists had two perspectives of Mars. “We have pictures taken from orbit around Mars, and then we have pictures taken by rovers driving on the ground,” says planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach of Rice University in Houston, who is not part of the Ingenuity team. “But now this has opened up an entirely new perspective on Mars.”
Ingenuity has surpassed all expectations. It has shown not only that flight is possible but also what is possible with flight. Science News discussed the helicopter’s big moments, collaboration with the rover and upcoming flights with Håvard Fjær Grip. He’s Ingenuity’s chief pilot and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. His answers were edited for length and clarity.
SN: What does the “chief pilot” for a helicopter on another planet do?
Grip: The biggest part of the job is planning the flights. Ingenuity doesn’t know where it is or where it wants to go when it wakes up, so all of those decisions are made here [on Earth]. Every maneuver that the helicopter makes during the flight is planned here on the ground first, and then we uplink the instructions to Ingenuity. When it comes time to fly, it uses its onboard software to follow our instructions as precisely as possible.
SN: Ingenuity has completed 25 flights. Can you talk about how it’s exceeded expectations?
Grip: It is pretty great. We came there expecting to perform at most five flights within the 30-day window. And all of that was going to happen within in a small area that we carefully selected. We spent weeks figuring out exactly where to place the helicopter, studying these tiny little rocks. Everything was mapped out. And then things went so well when we started flying that almost immediately people started thinking, “Wow, let’s try to make use of this beyond those five flights.”
We started this next phase where, to be useful at all, we had to fly away from this carefully selected area. I’m really proud of that. We’ve been able to take this technology that was designed for this very limited mission and extend it to go and land different places on Mars and to travel across terrain that, originally, we had never planned on traveling across.
It’s lasted now for over a year since we deployed it to the surface. I don’t think any of us had imagined that that would be possible.
SN: Have there been any specific flights that have stood out to you?
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Grip: Obviously, the first flight. That was the most important flight; it still is. We had a more challenging [time on] flight six. It became exciting, because we had an anomaly during the flight. [A glitch led to navigation images being marked with the wrong time stamps, which caused Ingenuity to sway back and forth during its flight.] Ingenuity had to power through that and survive and get down on the ground in one piece.
We’ve had some flights that have been dedicated to scouting activities. We went to an area where the rover was going to spend several months, and we went ahead of the rover and scouted [it] out so the rover drivers could be more efficient in finding safe ways to drive. Those were flights 12 and 13. Then some of these longer flights have been exciting. Flight No. 9, until a few days ago, was the biggest thing we’d ever done, at [a distance of] 625 meters. And with flight 25, we just beat that and flew more than 700 meters.
SN: There was a flight recently that had to be postponed because of a dust storm, right?
Grip: That’s correct. That was flight No. 19. With flying, whether it’s on Mars or here on Earth, you’re worried about weather. We always look at the weather before flying. And every time we’ve done that [on Mars], it had been more or less the same. Then the afternoon before we were about to open flight 19, we were notified that we had a dust storm. That delayed us by quite a bit. When we woke up from that, we had dust on our navigation camera lens, and sand covered our legs partially. We had to fly out of that, and it was a new challenge for the helicopter, but again, it tackled that perfectly.
SN: Ingenuity has flown through two seasons on Mars. As seasons change, so does air pressure. Does that affect the helicopter?
Grip: Yeah, that’s a pretty big deal. We knew, for several years before launch, exactly when we were going to land and where we were going to land. Our design was geared towards the first few months after landing, and that coincided with a particular season [spring] in Jezero crater on Mars. We could [ahead of launch] predict reasonably well what the air density would be. And when we extended [the mission] beyond that, the air density started dropping. To be able to keep flying, we had to increase our rotor speed. In fact, we increased it above anything we tested on Earth. Now we’ve come out of summer, the density has started climbing again, and we’ve been able to go back to our original rotor speed and also extend our flight time.
SN: What comes next? Are there any big flights planned soon?
Grip: We’re going to make our way over to the river delta that Perseverance is headed toward. We’ve just completed the biggest obstacle to doing that, flight 25, which was getting across this region called Séítah, which has a lot of sand and varied terrain. And when we get to the river delta, there are a few different options on the table: to help the rover drivers, to scout out targets, or even potentially to do some scouting on behalf of the next Mars mission. Perseverance is the first part of a sample return campaign. It’s sampling right now. And those samples will be left on the surface and will be eventually picked up — that’s the plan anyway — and sent back to Earth.
SN: What does Ingenuity mean for future exploration?
Grip: This is a new era. Aviation in space is now a thing. We can’t think about Mars exploration without aerial assets as part of that. I think that’s the most exciting thing.