A year ago, Ingenuity made its first flight to Mars. And its story since is that of a small real-world helicopter that could.
Ingenuity traveled to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, and both arrived in Jezero Crater last February (SN: 02/17/21). About six weeks later, the helicopter began what was supposed to be just a 30-day technology demonstration to see if flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere.
It proved he could fly – and then some (SN: 04/19/21). Over the next two weeks, Ingenuity completed four more flights, each time going a little farther, a little faster, and a little higher. After these initial test flights, Ingenuity’s mission shifted from technology demonstration to operations, helping Perseverance traverse the surface by exploring the terrain ahead of it (SN: 04/30/21; SN: 12/10/21).
Before the helicopter arrived, scientists had two perspectives of Mars. “We have photos taken from orbit around Mars, and then we have photos taken by rovers rolling on the ground,” says planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach of Rice University in Houston, who is not part of the team. Ingenuity. “But now it’s opened up a whole new perspective on Mars.”
The ingenuity exceeded all expectations. He showed not only that flight is possible, but also what is possible with flight. Scientific News discussed helicopter highlights, the rover collaboration and upcoming flights with Håvard Fjær Grip. He is chief pilot for Ingenuity and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
NS: What does the “chief pilot” of a helicopter do on another planet?
Grab: Most of the work involves planning the flights. Ingenuity doesn’t know where it is or where it wants to go when it wakes up, so all those decisions are made here [on Earth]. Every maneuver the helicopter performs during the flight is first planned here on the ground, and then we pass the instructions to Ingenuity. When the time comes to fly, it uses its on-board software to follow our instructions as precisely as possible.
NS: Ingenuity has performed 25 flights. Can you tell us how it exceeded expectations?
Grab: It’s pretty awesome. We came here hoping to fly at most five flights in the 30 day window. And all of this was going to happen in a small area that we carefully selected. We spent weeks figuring out exactly where to place the helicopter, studying those tiny rocks. Everything was mapped out. And then things went so well when we started flying that almost immediately people started thinking, ‘Wow, let’s try to use this beyond those five flights.
We started this next phase where, to be of any use at all, we had to fly out of this carefully selected area. I’m really proud of it. We were able to take this technology that was designed for this very limited mission and expand it to go and land in different places on Mars and travel through terrain that we originally never intended to travel.
It’s now been over a year since we deployed it to the surface. I don’t think any of us imagined that would be possible.
NS: Were there any flights in particular that marked you?
Grab: Obviously, the first flight. It was the most important theft; It’s always like that. We had a harder challenge [time on] flight six. It got exciting, because we had an anomaly during the flight. [A glitch led to navigation images being marked with the wrong time stamps, which caused Ingenuity to sway back and forth during its flight.] Ingenuity had to make it out, survive, and fall to the ground in one piece.
We had a few flights that were dedicated to scouting activities. We went to an area where the rover was going to spend several months, and we went in front of the rover and spotted [it] so rover drivers can be more efficient at finding safe ways to drive. Those were flights 12 and 13. Then some of those longer flights were exciting. Flight 9, until a few days ago, was the biggest thing we’ve ever done, [a distance of] 625 meters. And with Flight 25, we just beat that and flew over 700 meters.
NS: There was a flight recently that had to be postponed due to a dust storm, right?
Grab: It’s correct. It was Flight #19. With flight, whether on Mars or here on Earth, you worry about the weather. We always check the weather before flying. And every time we did that [on Mars], it was more or less the same thing. Then the afternoon before we were about to open flight 19, we were informed that we had a dust storm. It set us back quite a bit. When we woke up, we had dust on our nav camera lens and sand partially covering our legs. We had to fly out of that, and that was a new challenge for the helicopter, but again, it coped with that problem perfectly.
NS: Ingenuity flew two seasons on Mars. As the seasons change, the atmospheric pressure also changes. Does it affect the helicopter?
Grab: Yeah, that’s a big deal. We knew, for several years before launch, exactly when we were going to land and where we were going to land. Our design was geared towards the first few months after landing, and that coincided with a particular season [spring] in the Jezero crater on Mars. We could [ahead of launch] reasonably predict what the air density would be. And when we extended [the mission] beyond that, the air density began to drop. To be able to continue flying, we had to increase the speed of our rotor. In fact, we’ve increased it above anything we’ve tested on Earth. Now that we are out of the summer the density has started to climb again and we have been able to get back to our original rotor speed and extend our flight time as well.
NS: What happens next? Are there any big flights planned soon?
Grab: We will head towards the delta of the river that Perseverance is heading towards. We just cleared the biggest hurdle to get there, flight 25, which was going through this area called Séítah, which has lots of sand and varied terrain. And when we get to the river delta, there are a few different options on the table: helping rover drivers, scouting targets, or even potentially doing scouting for the next Mars mission. Persistence is the first part of a return campaign example. It’s sampling right now. And those samples will be left on the surface and will eventually be retrieved – that’s the plan anyway – and returned to Earth.
SN: What does ingenuity mean for future exploration?
Grab: It’s a new era. Space aviation is now a thing. We can’t think of Mars exploration without air assets as part of that. I think that’s the most exciting thing.