HomeOutdoorsNewsNASA’s Mars Mission Breaks Major Record With Ingenuity Helicopter

NASA’s Mars Mission Breaks Major Record With Ingenuity Helicopter

by Caitlin Berard

In the summer of 2020, NASA launched Percy (full name, Perseverance), a car-sized rover, as part of the Mars 2020 mission. For seven long months, Percy traveled through the vacuum of space, drifting among the stars toward the Red Planet with a small robotic helicopter fondly dubbed Ginny (Ingenuity) in tow.

Finally, on February 18, 2021, the companions touched down on the Martian surface, beginning what’s now become a two-year voyage across the desolate planet. And on December 3, the little 4-pound helicopter reached new heights, breaking its previously set record. Ginny journeyed 46 feet above the surface of Mars, hovering for 52 seconds and traveling around 50 feet before touching back down.

This marked the copter’s first flight since its 18-second trip on November 22 following an upgrade designed to increase its lifespan. With the new software, Ginny can more easily avoid hazards on the treacherous Martian surface by generating maps as it travels.

When NASA scientists made the decision to send the helicopter along for the ride with the launch of Perseverance, they envisioned a few flights and nothing more. Ingenuity was merely a technology demonstration, not a Mars explorer. They quickly discovered, however, that Ginny was far more useful than they originally anticipated.

NASA Mini Helicopter Keeps the Mars Rover Safe

Ginny now works as Percy’s aerial scout, protecting the Mars rover from harm by flying over areas too dangerous for it and choosing new routes for the land traveler. Her next feat? Flying up the otherwise unnavigable terrain of the ancient river delta, through which Martian water flowed over 3 billion years ago. And that’s just the star of Ingenuity’s adventures.

“Ingenuity’s success has led to NASA’s decision to take two Ingenuity class helicopters on the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander scheduled for later in this decade,” Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, wrote in a NASA status update.

“These Sample Recovery Helicopters, with wheels instead of feet, and a small manipulator arm with a two-fingered gripper, will, if needed, carry precious sample tubes from a sample cache depot back to the Mars ascent vehicle for launch back to Earth. A more capable Mars Science Helicopter with the ability to carry almost 5 kg of science payloads is also in early conceptual and design stages.”

Mars Vehicles Help Scientists Prep for Humans’ Arrival

While Ginny is busy navigating the skies, Percy is exploring the ground. This month, Perseverance collected its first two samples of regolith, a mixture of Martian sand and dust. “There are so many different materials mixed into Martian regolith,” NASA astrobiologist Libby Hausrath said in a statement. “Each sample represents an integrated history of the planet’s surface.”

The travels of both Ginny and Percy are to safely inspect the surface of Mars ahead of humans’ arrival in the future. “If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats,” Erin Gibbons, a member of the Perseverance rover science team, said in a statement.

“Some of those dust grains could be as fine as cigarette smoke, and could get into an astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We want a fuller picture of which materials would be harmful to our explorers, whether they’re human or robotic.”