▶️ Little Did I Know: Mars Ingenuity helicopter more than accomplished mission

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A couple of weeks ago, a helicopter was badly damaged and will never fly again. But this wasn’t just any helicopter. It’s called Ingenuity and it flew on the planet Mars — the first vehicle in the universe to achieve flight on another planet (as far as we know).

Ingenuity piggybacked aboard the rover Perseverance, which landed on Mars in 2021. The little helicopter deployed for the first time on April 19, 2021. It was as a tech demonstration for future missions, with the goal of accomplishing five flights. It went way beyond that.

“Our big goal, we’re always pushing for that first flight. We had no idea what ingenuity was really capable of,” Ingenuity team leader Joshua Anderson said. “And we got one flight and then two flights. We’re like, ‘Wow, let’s see what we can do.’ We got three or four flights. Maybe we’ll get the ten.”

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After the first goal of five flights was achieved, the decision was made to continue pushing its limits. That almost got pushed too far immediately with flight number six.

“Midway through the flight, we had a timing issue where the images that we were taking weren’t agreeing with the timestamps. That confusion led to Ingenuity thinking it was in a different spot than it was. And so it was really struggling to control itself and make it to the end of the flight. Fortunately, we were able to get the data we needed to understand the issue and quickly patch it going forward. So, fortunately, that didn’t reoccur,” Anderson said.

The flights continued, but this time with a little more sense of urgency because the Martian winter was approaching and Martian winters are a bit more frigid than those on Earth.

“Even our chief engineer, Bob, who was one of the biggest believers in Ingenuity will ever meet, said ‘You know, winter is probably going to be the end.’ Sure enough, not far into our first winter, Ingenuity one day didn’t check in with us. That was probably one of my scariest moments on the team and seeing that lack of signal from Ingenuity, we got really worried,” Anderson said. “We thought, ‘Well, you know, we had a great run. Probably the end of the mission,’ And we worked with the Perseverance team — did an awesome job helping us turn on our radio and search for Ingenuity throughout the day. And the next day, Ingenuity talked to us. She was still healthy. Just a little bit confused,” Anderson said.

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The world was stunned to see that Ingenuity survived the Martian winter, especially because there were many in the know who wondered if flying on the Mars was even possible.

“Up until ingenuity flew the first time, there were a lot of experienced scientists and engineers who thought our team was kind of crazy. They were like, ‘Yeah, sure, on paper you can fly on Mars, but like, practically speaking, can you actually do anything with that?'” Anderson said.

Ingenuity continued to fly. It was when the flight numbers hit the 70s that Ingenuity spread her wings for the final time. There’s no GPS on Mars, so Ingenuity relied on its cameras to get its bearings. The sandy dunes and barren ground confused it. She lost track of where she was and attempted an emergency landing that almost went according to plan.

“Helicopters really depends and on well-balanced blades. Ingenuity, in particular, spins really fast. Our blades spin at almost the speed of sound on Mars, and so if the blades are perfectly balanced and you spent tons of time when we were designing those blades to balance them, when you try and spin up, they’re just not stable,” Anderson said.

On January 18, Ingenuity was grounded. But she’s not dead.

“Ingenuity is still remarkably healthy,” Anderson said. “She’s still upright. She’s still talking to us. And so we are going to use this opportunity to get the last little bit of data we had on board Ingenuity off. We’re going to be doing some diagnosing of everything we can learn about what happened in this emergency landing in Flight 71 and 72, and hopefully even talking to Perseverance and continuing to collect science for a little while as Perseverance explores this corner of Jezero Delta and starts climbing up the greater rim.”

I believe it was Edgar Allen Poe that said it best: “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say when one ends, and where the other begins?”

“She’s gone so far above and beyond what we could have ever imagined. Seventy-two flights and 17 kilometers is just incredible. And, even in the end, she continues to surprise us, going out her own way, landing upright, continuing to talk with us and telling us it’s time for a rest,” Anderson said.

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