NASA's little helicopter on Mars hits 50 flights

Ingenuity on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA's tiny helicopter on Mars — named Ingenuity — just completed its 50th flight on the Red Planet.

Why it matters: The tiny drone, which was designed as a technology demonstration to inform future missions, was never expected to survive this long on Mars.

  • "When we first flew, we thought we would be incredibly lucky to eke out five flights," Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity team lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

What's happening: Ingenuity's 50th flight — which took place on April 13 — saw the drone fly more than 1,057 feet in about 146 seconds.

  • "We’re flying over the dried-up remnants of an ancient river that is filled with sand dunes, boulders, and rocks, and surrounded by hills that could have us for lunch," Josh Anderson, Ingenuity operations lead, said in the statement.
  • "And while we recently upgraded the navigation software onboard to help determine safe airfields, every flight is still a white-knuckler."

The big picture: Ingenuity's success has shown that helicopters could be useful for future crewed missions to Mars.

  • The drone has been scouting out the terrain ahead of the Perseverance rover, keeping mission operators updated on what could be coming up for the car-sized spacecraft.
  • Helicopters like this could also access parts of a planet that might be difficult to reach by driving.

What's next: Ingenuity has been showing some signs of wear and tear as it flies in this difficult terrain on Mars, according to NASA.

  • "Whether Ingenuity’s mission ends tomorrow, next week, or months from now is something no one can predict at present," Tzanetos added. "What I can predict is that when it does, we’ll have one heck of a party."

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