NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Soars 2,000 Feet Through Martian Atmosphere in Its Ninth Successful Test Flight

The aerial trooper set new records for speed and distance, as well as stretched the capabilities of its navigation system

Ingenuity shadow
Ingenuity releases its first aerial photos of its shadow cast across the Séítah terrain during its ninth flight. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s helicopter Ingenuity just completed its ninth test flight on Mars with flying colors, sailing faster and further than it ever has before. On July 5, Ingenuity flew for 166.4 seconds, long enough to traverse a total distance of 2,050 feet. Ingenuity even broke its speed record by clocking in at 15 feet per second, the equivalent of a brisk run, reports Eric Berger for Ars Technica.

The flight was a landmark for Ingenuity. Previously, the gravity defying gizmo has stayed close to its mothership, NASA’s Perseverance rover, flying a short distance ahead then waiting for the heftier landbound companion to catch up.

In its ninth flight, Ingenuity leveled up from an accompaniment role to a solo mission. It flew over the sandy Séítah terrain, where no rover has gone— nor can go—before. Séítah translates to “amidst the sand” in the Navajo language Diné Bizaad, and the terrain is exactly as its name describes, reports Isaac Schultz for Gizmodo. The undulating sands and high slopes covering this stretch of land would hamper any wheeled vehicle daring to cross—but not a flying one.

On July 5, Ingenuity took a shortcut straight across Séítah toward a safer plain in the south. Along the way, it snapped close-up images of Séítah’s terrain for further scientific study. Ingenuity’s latest flight demonstrates the benefits of having an aerial vehicle around. It can work with Perseverance to divide-and-conquer different types of Martian terrains to cover more ground.

“A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle (and only an aerial vehicle) can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration—traveling quickly across otherwise untraversable terrain while scouting for interesting science targets,” wrote NASA’s helicopter team in a statement before the ninth flight.

Crossing Séítah’s sandy soil challenged Ingenuity’s navigation algorithm like never before, per NASA’s statement. Ingenuity’s algorithm sets the helicopter’s flight path for a flat landscape, so it hadn’t been tested on complex, rippling topographies—until now. Séítah’s bumpy landscape could have caused Ingenuity to bob up and down in altitude and potentially confuse the chopper’s camera to the extent that it may miss its intended destination altogether. To compensate, the engineers flew Ingenuity slowly at higher altitudes over particularly tricky sections of its route.

“It is safe to say that it will be the most nerve-wracking flight since Flight 1,” wrote NASA in their pre-flight statement. As this week’s flight revealed, taking the risk paid off.

After a job well done, Ingenuity will hand off its data to Perseverance, which will transmit the data to scientists back on Earth, reports Meghan Bartels for Space.

Ingenuity has come a long way since it first touched down on the Red Planet in early April this year. Its first flight on April 19 lasted 30 seconds and attained a height of three meters above the Martian surface. Since then, Ingenuity has navigated five different airfields and smashed its own flight records one after the other. It even weathered an in-flight anomaly on its sixth flight, during which it tilted back and forth like a pendulum, due to a glitch that caused the navigation camera and the timestamp to go out of sync. For every flight so far, Ingenuity has stuck its landing.

With such a successful track record, it may be easy to take for granted the engineering feat that Ingenuity is in the first place. Ingenuity is the first humanmade object that has ever flown on an alien world. It has four rotor blades that spin at 2,400 rounds per minute—much faster than any helicopter back on Earth. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, so Ingenuity’s rotors need to churn swiftly to grab enough air for the helicopter to lift off the ground.

This challenge forced Ingenuity’s engineers to make it as lightweight as possible, writes Alana Johnson, Grey Hautaluoma and DC Agle in a NASA press release. However, it carries an additional rechargeable battery—a necessary deadweight—to warm itself up as it flies when nighttime temperatures dip as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The soaring robot was meant to be a proof-of-concept prototype for future flying vehicles on other planets—so there are no scientific instruments on board.

Considering its success thus far, it’s safe to say Ingenuity is keeping scientists’ space exploration flight of fancies aloft.