Skip to main content

NASA’s Mars helicopter just did something it’s never done before

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, has surpassed the mission team’s expectations for the diminutive drone-like machine.

Ever since its maiden flight over the Martian surface in April 2021 in which it became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet, Ingenuity has gone on to perform evermore complex flights and even assisted Perseverance, the ground-based rover that Ingenuity traveled with from Earth to Mars before their spectacular touchdown in February 2021.

In the last month alone, the 4-pound, 19-inch-tall helicopter has set three records. In early October, it set a new altitude record by soaring 79 feet (24 meters) above the red planet’s surface, and a short while later it reached a record speed of 22.4 mph (10 meters per second) during its 62nd flight, comfortably exceeding its previous speed record of 17.9 mph (8 m/s).

And now NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Ingenuity mission, has announced a new first for the helicopter: back-to-back flights on consecutive days.

The flights — the 65th and 66th for Ingenuity — took place on November 2 and 3, with JPL confirming their success on Tuesday. Usually, the team would take time to assess the results of each flight, so sending the helicopter skyward again in such a short period of time is a mark of the team’s confidence in Ingenuity, which has more than proved itself over the last two-and-a-half years.

The 65th flight was relatively short for Ingenuity, covering a distance of just 23 feet (7 meters). But the next flight was even shorter, taking it just a couple of feet in a repositioning exercise to prepare it for a two-week communications shutdown with JPL.

This shutdown is the result of what’s known as solar conjunction when the orbit of Earth and Mars places the two planets on opposite sides of the sun, blocking communications for about two weeks. Solar conjunction involving Mars happens once every couple of years and so the JPL team has successfully dealt with one already, in September 2021.

Once communications resume later this month, Ingenuity and Perseverance will get back to work. For the rover, that means further exploration of the Martian surface as it searches for evidence of ancient microbial life. Ingenuity, meanwhile, will continue to provide aerial imagery for Perseverance to help operators plan routes across the challenging terrain, while also giving engineers data to help them design more advanced versions of the helicopter for future missions.

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA says goodbye to Mars helicopter Ingenuity after an incredible 72 flights
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its rotor blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

It's a sad day for space fans, as the plucky little helicopter Ingenuity has finally come to the end of its mission on Mars. The helicopter will not be making anymore flights due to damage to one of its rotors that occurred during a recent landing, NASA said in an announcement on Thursday, January 25.

The mission was originally planned to make just five flights and to last 30 days, but has been successful beyond what anyone had imagined. The helicopter has made a total of 72 flights over the course of its three-year mission, which began when it was set down on the surface of Mars by the Perseverance rover. The rover arrived on Mars with the helicopter tucked up underneath its belly in February 2021, and Ingenuity sat on the surface for the first time in April 2021. It then made history by becoming the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet with its maiden flight.

Read more
NASA regains communications with Mars helicopter Ingenuity
The Ingenuity helicopter is pictured on the surface of Mars.

Just a few days after losing contact with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, NASA announced that it has regained communications with the plucky little helicopter. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designed and operated the helicopter, announced that it is back in touch following an unexpected communications dropout.

The Ingenuity helicopter is pictured on the surface of Mars. NASA

Read more
NASA has lost communication with the Ingenuity Mars helicopter
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission.

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity has had a remarkable lifespan and has proven to be a greater success than anyone imagined. Originally designed to perform just five flights over the surface of Mars, the helicopter has now performed more than 70. However, NASA has now announced that it has lost contact with the helicopter, though it's unclear how serious this problem is.

The helicopter was performing its 72nd flight, which was an adjustment and correction to a previous flight that was cut short. Flight 71 was intended to be a journey of 1,175 feet (358 meters), but when the helicopter made this flight earlier in the month, it traveled just a third of that. The problem was related to its downward-facing camera, which uses surface indications for autonomous navigation. The helicopter was traveling over a particularly featureless expanse of the surface, and the lack of landmarks appeared to cause a problem with its navigation, forcing the flight to end early.

Read more