Mars Report: The Most Extreme Flights of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

February 1, 2024
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NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter pushed aerodynamic limits during the final months of its mission, setting new records for speed, distance, and altitude. Hear from Ingenuity chief engineer Travis Brown on how the data the team collected could eventually be used in future rotorcraft designs.

Ingenuity was originally designed to make up to five flights – but completed 72 before sustaining rotor-blade damage that rendered it unable to fly. NASA announced the end of the helicopter’s mission on Jan. 25, 2024. The maximum altitude achieved by the helicopter during its mission was 79 feet (24 meters), on Flight 61. The maximum groundspeed was 22.4 mph (10 meters per second), reached during Flights 62, 68, and 69. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California built and manages operations for Ingenuity and the Perseverance Mars rover.

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Travis Brown: The Ingenuity Mars helicopter was designed to push the limits. And I'm going to show you how we've taken it to the extreme.

Today, we're here in the aerial vehicles lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where we develop prototype helicopters.

Ingenuity started off as a tech demo to push the aeronautical boundaries over the course of five flights.

Then we transitioned into an operational demo phase where we partnered with the Perseverance rover to do science and scouting.

But about a year ago, when the Perseverance rover started racing up the Jezero Crater delta, we actually found that we had to work pretty hard to stay ahead of the rover.

We decided it was time to shift gears again, once again pushing the boundaries of Martian flight.

This campaign really began in earnest with Flight 49, where we simultaneously set new speed and altitude records.

By Flight 62, we had nearly doubled our max speed and doubled our max altitude.

We also tested different landing speeds - faster to save energy and slower to reduce landing loads. Both of these strategies may be used on future helicopters.

We performed a type of flight testing called system identification.

This is a crucial but risky procedure that helps us understand the vehicle's performance by how it responds.

Our team also devised new ways to target the high-resolution camera, which allows us to provide advanced reconnaissance imaging for the rover.

And we were able to take stunning shots like this one of Belva Crater from Flight 51.

In addition, Ingenuity conducted several first-of-their-kind experiments on Martian wind and dust movement, which gave us new insight into the Martian atmosphere.

What we've learned will help us design the next generation of Martian rotorcraft.

We're testing more efficient blades.

We’re also working on a Mars Science Helicopter concept that could potentially transport heavier payloads and take us to more exciting locations on Mars.

When people look back at ingenuity, I really hope that they see how much this one small helicopter has done to elevate the limits of human achievement.