Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Completes Ninth and Toughest Flight

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The Ingenuity helicopter is purpose-built to make history, so it should come as no surprise that the plucky little drone has just completed its ninth flight on Mars, and this was the most impressive one yet. Ingenuity flew higher, faster, and farther than it has before, and it’s still raring to go for another trip. 

The Ingenuity team released some details of what they intended for the ninth flight back on July 2. The flight took place on July 5th. While we don’t have full details on the helicopter’s activities, we know the JPL sees the flight as yet another smashing success. We also have yet another snapshot of the drone’s shadow on the surface. Ingenuity only has downward-facing cameras because it was intended as a technology demo mission only. 

According to a tweet posted yesterday after the operation ended, Ingenuity spent 166.4 seconds in the air, and it reached a speed of 5 m/s. That might not sound very fast for a helicopter, but this is a helicopter on another planet. Rovers like Perseverance and its older sibling Curiosity can only crawl along a few meters at a time because operators here on Earth need to make sure it doesn’t roll over something dangerous. Ingenuity has the power to get where it’s going fast. 

NASA announced several weeks back that it was extending Ingenuity’s technology demonstration mission, which was only supposed to last a month. The new “operations demonstration” phase has seen the helicopter begin making one-way flights, covering more distance, and moving quicker. During a previous flight, a computer glitch caused some wobbling and a temporary loss of location tracking, but the robot’s generous error margins helped it set down safely. During this flight, Ingenuity passed over a sandy area known as Séítah. This was a challenge for the robot as its navigation algorithms were designed for flat rocky terrain, not rolling dunes. It did not suffer any issues as it did previously. 

As successful as Ingenuity is, it probably won’t live much longer on the red planet. NASA designed the helicopter to be light and efficient with the help of off-the-shelf components, such as a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor. However, these parts are not hardened against the harsh conditions on Mars. It’s unlikely the tiny solar-powered helicopter will survive the upcoming Martian winter. However, it’s already made history, and its descendants will no doubt do even more. 

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