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Mars helicopter Ingenuity reaches remarkable milestone in its mission

The little Mars helicopter Ingenuity has reached an impressive milestone, hitting a total of 30 minutes spent in the air above the red planet.

Ingenuity hit this milestone during its 17th flight. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reports that over its mission so far the helicopter has traveled a total distance of 2.2 miles (3,592 meters), “flying as high as 40 feet (12 meters) and as fast as 10 mph (5 meters per second).”

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z.
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, 2021, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The helicopter, which is classified as a technology demonstration — i.e. a test to see if flying a helicopter on Mars was even possible — and was originally only intended for five fights. But it has exceeded all expectations, overcoming challenges including changing seasons on Mars, a solar conjunction, and a communications issue with its rover buddy Perseverance.

“Few thought we would make it to flight one, fewer still to five. And no one thought we would make it this far,” said Ingenuity Team Lead Teddy Tzanetos of JPL in a statement. “On the way to accumulating over a half-hour aloft, Ingenuity has survived eight months of bitter cold, and operated out of nine unique Martian airfields. The aircraft’s continued operations speaks to the robustness the design and the diligence and passion of our small operations team.”

One of the challenges of flying on Mars is keeping aloft in the very thin atmosphere, which is just 1% the density of the atmosphere on Earth. And to make matters even harder, the changing Martian seasons mean that the atmospheric density has dropped even lower than it was when Ingenuity and Perseverance landed. To handle this change, Ingenuity has had to spin its rotor blades at even higher speeds to generate enough lift to keep it in the air.

Since the announcement of it hitting the 30 minutes in the air mark, Ingenuity has performed yet another flight. The official NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Twitter account confirmed that Ingenuity’s 18th flight was a success, with the helicopter adding a further 124.3 seconds to its total flight time and traveling 754 feet (230 meters).

The #MarsHelicopter keeps going, going, going! Ingenuity successfully completed its 18th flight, adding 124.3 seconds to its overall time aloft on the Red Planet. It flew 754 feet (230 meters) at a speed of 5.6 mph (2.5 m/sec) & took images along the way.

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) December 17, 2021

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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