After a dozen flights, NASA’s chopper has yet to come a cropper

Enlarge / This image depicts the ground tracks of NASA’s Perseverance rover (white) and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (green) since arriving on Mars on Feb. 18. The upper yellow ellipse depicts the “South Séítah” region, which Ingenuity flew over during its 12th sortie.


NASA’s tiny helicopter on Mars, which has a fuselage about the size of a small toaster, has successfully flown above Mars for the 12th time.

Nearly half a year after the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter is still going strong on the surface of Mars. The small flyer has done so well that it has been separated from Perseverance for some time as it scouts ahead on the red planet.

Ingenuity completed its latest flight on Monday, ascending to 10 meters and flying 450 meters across Mars to investigate what scientists call the “South Séítah” region of Mars. The helicopter was aloft for a total of 169 seconds during Monday’s flight. In its dozen flights, Ingenuity has now covered 2.67 km, which is farther than Perseverance has rolled during nearly six months.

For Monday’s flight Ingenuity flew out over this intriguing region to scout its boulders and other geological features to help mission scientists determine whether they warrant further scrutiny by Perseverance. After slowing over this area of interest to take photographs, Ingenuity then flew back to its takeoff point. The flight involved significant risk because Ingenuity’s terrain navigation system was designed to fly across nearly flat terrain. Rocky terrain could induce errors in pitch and roll during flight.

“When we choose to accept the risks associated with such a flight, it is because of the correspondingly high rewards,” explained Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead, and Håvard F. Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot. “Knowing that we have the opportunity to help the Perseverance team with science planning by providing unique aerial footage is all the motivation needed.”

Ingenuity has proven to be a tremendous achievement. For the NASA helicopter team, a single flight would have meant success, and they hoped to perhaps complete three or four before losing Ingenuity. It has now flown a dozen missions and logged 22 minutes in the thin atmosphere above the surface of Mars.

A little more than a century ago, humans flew a powered aircraft above Earth’s surface for the first time at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Ingenuity carries a piece of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer. On what world, in which solar system, will a piece of Ingenuity fly a century from now?