NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made history last year when it took flight on Mars, but what began as a “technology demonstration” has become a more serious endeavor — NASA even paused Perseverance’s operations to tend to Ingenuity earlier this year. After a two-month hiatus, the helicopter is flying again, but just a little. The team wanted to keep the helicopter warmed up for future use, so the 30th flight was a quick hop similar to flight number two.
Ingenuity rode to Mars attached to the belly of Perseverance. The rover deployed the helicopter several months after arriving on Mars, and it completed its first historic flight on Apr. 19, 2021. In the run-up to Perseverance landing on Mars, NASA said that it only designed Ingenuity to be a technology demonstration, using off-the-shelf components that were not rated for use in the harsh environment of Mars. Therefore, it didn’t expect Ingenuity to last very long. Yet, here we are 18 months after landing with 30 flights in the books.
Beating expectations, Ingenuity has survived more than 100 sols (Martian days) of winter in Jezero Crater with nighttime temperatures as low as -124 degrees Fahrenheit (-86 Celsius). There’s not enough sunlight for the solar-powered robot to remain charged both day and night. However, there is enough sunlight for short daytime hops, and that’s what the team did earlier this week.
After two months of rest, Ingenuity took to the sky for a moment before setting back down this past weekend. It didn’t set any records, but it helped knock the dust off the solar panels and generate flight data so the team could verify the machinery was still in working order. NASA waited until later in the Martian afternoon on Aug. 20 when Ingenuity would have more battery power to kick off the 30th flight.
The #MarsHelicopter is back in flight! After a two-month hiatus, the rotorcraft did a short hop over the weekend so the team can check its vitals and knock some dust off the solar panel.
Learn more about why the team wanted a simple Flight 30: https://t.co/02Bn48aQ3Y pic.twitter.com/bnCUG794Ks
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 22, 2022
Like the second flight, this one was shorter and involved sideways movement. It rose 16 feet (five meters), “translated” sideways seven feet (two meters), and then landed after a total flight time of 33 seconds. This flight helped the team gather data about Ingenuity’s ability to accurately approach a landing target, which will be an important component of future helicopter operations on Mars. The upcoming Mars sample return mission now includes a pair of helicopters that will help retrieve sample containers from Perseverance and load them into the ascent vehicle that will send them into orbit.
As for Ingenuity, winter is slowly abating on the red planet. In the coming weeks, NASA plans to continue moving it toward the river delta where Perseverance is exploring. The upcoming longer days will allow longer flights. NASA also plans to transmit new software to the helicopter in September that will help it contend with the challenging terrain in the river delta.