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5 things to know about Nasa's Ingenuity Mars helicopter

Nasa's Ingenuity Mars helicopter recently ended its three-year mission on the red planet after sustaining damage to its rotor blades during a flight

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flies over Mars in an undated illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flies over Mars in an undated illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS)

Nasa’s Mars robot helicopter Ingenuity, which had a historic run, has ended its nearly three-year mission on the red planet after surpassing expectations. Launched in 2021, it was originally designed to perform up to five experimental test flights over 30 days.

On 18 January, it beamed an image back to Earth after its 72nd flight, which showed that a portion of the miniature whirligig's twin rotor blades had broken off, leaving it incapable of continuing operation, Nasa officials confirmed in a press statement earlier this month. The small, autonomous aircraft was attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover and carried to Mars. Perseverance was launched in July 2020 and landed on the red planet in February 2021.

Also read: NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity makes its longest flight yet

“That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined and helped Nasa do what we do best – make the impossible, possible. Through missions like Ingenuity, Nasa is paving the way for future flight in our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement.

Here are five interesting things about the history-making Ingenuity Mars helicopter. 

A lightweight innovation

Ingenuity was fitted with four specially made carbon-fibre blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm – significantly faster than a passenger helicopter. When it took flight, it had components such as innovative solar cells, and batteries. 

It had to be lightweight, weighing just about 1.8 kg because Mars’ thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. As Mars's atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth’s, Ingenuity had to be light with its rotor blades that are significantly larger and spin much faster than a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.

A separate experiment

Ingenuity was an experiment and didn’t carry any science instruments to support Perseverance and is considered a separate mission from the Mars rover. It was sent to Mars to perform experimental flight tests that could help understand if powered, controlled flight on Mars was a possibility. It required the Perseverance rover to help with communications with Earth.

After its fifth test flight on 7 May 2021, Ingenuity began exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could help with future exploration of Mars and other worlds. 

The data from its flights was also used to help with decisions about whether how small helicopters could be used for full standalone science craft carrying instrument payloads. According to Nasa, in the distant future, the helicopter could help astronauts explore Mars. Moreover, the images taken by the helicopter helped with the Perseverance rover’s exploration of the Jezero crater.

Historic first flight

Ingenuity was the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.  Interestingly, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight, the Ingenuity helicopter achieved a historic feat in another world, Nasa said after its successful flight on 19 April 2021. The Martian airfield on which the flight took place was named Wright Brothers Field to honour their contribution to the world of aviation.

Nasa also revealed that Ingenuity contains a swatch from the Wright brothers’ first plane. It is from a wing of the Wright brothers’ first plane, the Flyer, which they flew in December 1903. The Flyer was the first powered plane to successfully take off and land.

Extended mission

Ingenuity’s extended mission lasted for almost 1,000 Martian days, which is over 33 times longer than originally planned. During this time, it was upgraded with the ability to autonomously choose landing sites in extremely challenging terrain, dealt with a dead sensor, cleaned itself after dust storms, operated from 48 different airfields, performed three emergency landings, and even survived a severe Martian winter, Nasa says on its website.

Named by a schoolgirl

The name ‘Ingenuity’ was originally submitted by a high school student Vaneeza Rupani from Northport, Alabama, for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance. However, the name was recognized as a good choice for Nasa’s helicopter.

"The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration," Rupani wrote in her submission to the Name the Rover essay contest, Nasa said on its website.

Also read: NASA's Ingenuity all set for its first flight over Mars

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