NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter sets an altitude record on Mars


Ever since taking off on its historic first flight last year, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been single-handedly raising the bar for the Red Planet’s aviation scene, and has now soared to its greatest heights yet. The latest outing for the Mars helicopter has resulted in a new altitude record, rising 46 ft (14 m) above the Martian surface.

Flying a rotorcraft like the Ingenuity helicopter on Earth would be a pretty unremarkable achievement, but the foreign flight conditions on the Red Planet make each of its jaunts a remarkable feat of science and engineering. The gravity on Mars is only a third as strong as it is on Earth, and the atmosphere is very thin, around 1% the density of our own. Compounding the issue is the fact that radio signals take more than 12 minutes to reach Mars, meaning Ingenuity has to fly without human control.

The aircraft was able to overcome these challenges to make the first ever powered flight on another planet in April last year, reaching an altitude of 10 ft (3 m) and hovering there for 30 seconds. This kicked off a 30-day test program that included its first horizontal flight, and a flight in which it exceeded the performance demonstrated in testing back home to reach an altitude of 16 ft (5 m).

With this program proving a resounding success, a one-way trip to a new home in the Jezero Crater soon followed, to assist operations of the Perseverance rover on the ground. Earlier this year, the helicopter also paid a visit to the crash site of the protective aeroshell and parachute that safely guided it and Perseverance to the surface of the Red Planet in early 2021.

Ingenuity has now taken to the skies 35 times in all, covered 7,400 m (24,300 ft) and clocked up almost 60 minutes of flight time. Never before has it reached the heights of its most recent outing, however, reaching the record 46-ft altitude during a 52-second jaunt on December 3 as part of a repositioning exercise.

NASA scientists recently installed a software update that equips Ingenuity with the ability to better avoid hazards when landing and use digital elevation maps when navigating. This will form an important part of its functionality as it continues to demonstrate how it can act as a scout for Perseverance on the ground.

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