NASA engineers expected their Mars helicopter to crash after 5 liftoffs. It just landed its 15th flight.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter was on Mars when the Perseverance Rover dropped it on April 5, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA sent the Ingenuity helicopter to Mars without any guarantee of success.

It has flown faster, further, and higher than engineers could have imagined.

NASA had predicted that Ingenuity would crash on flight 5, but it just landed safely on the 15th.

NASA workers had an idea for a moonshot while they were building Perseverance. What if the Perseverance Rover carried a small helicopter to Mars?

Engineers did not know whether a helicopter could work on Mars. It would be difficult to lift off in an atmosphere with only 1% of Earth's atmosphere. This is equivalent to flying three times higher than Mount Everest. NASA wanted to demonstrate it through technology demonstrations.

NASA engineers created a tiny rotorcraft called Ingenuity and then packed it into Perseverance's last space. Ingenuity wouldn't survive the first night on Mars, according to engineers. They also feared that Ingenuity would not fly after they gave the command or that it would crash on one of its five planned flight.

Ingenuity was able to dispel those fears again and again. The drone, which is about the size of a tissue box, flew its 15th flight on Saturday.

NASA continues to process data from the latest aerial adventure. If everything went as planned, Ingenuity would have soared nearly 40 feet in the air and then covered 1,332 feet of Martian terrain in less than 129 seconds.

NASA has been waiting for the Mars helicopter to crash.

Ingenuity and Perseverance, two of the oldest lakes in the world, landed on February 18th at Jezero Crater. Scientists believe that Lake Jezero may have been home to Martian microbes over 3.5 billion years ago. These alien microbes could have been fossilized in the mineral deposit that fell to the lake's bottom and turned into rock if they ever existed.

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Engineers didn't initially expect Ingenuity would fly higher than 15ft above Jezero Crater at first. MiMi Aung, project manager, stated in April that the helicopter would not be able to land safely on its fifth flight because it will now go into unsurveyed areas.

Ingenuity's shadow is shown in a photo taken from its navigation camera during its 13th flight, September 5, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

She added that "if we have a poor landing, that will be our end of mission." "How well the landing goes, pretty much, will determine how long it lasts."

However, Ingenuity has landed the aircraft at least 14 times (and probably 15 depending on NASA's confirmation).

During the fourth flight of the helicopter on April 30, 2021, Perseverance recorded Ingenuity. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ISAE-SUPAERO

Ingenuity flew five flights and did so well NASA extended its mission to 30 days. The helicopter flew over terrain previously unknown on its sixth bonus flight.

It has since travelled to many unexplored locations over rocky terrains and rippled sand.

Ingenuity also took photos of rock outcroppings and fields that were near the Perseverance team's proposed landing site for the rover. NASA used these images to determine safe and flat routes for the rover to follow. Scientists also used Ingenuity's photos to determine the types of rocks in the area. This information could be useful for determining Jezero Crater’s past, if Perseverance was to collect samples.

In an April briefing, Perseverance scientist Ken Farley stated that "the ability to fly the helicopter into terrain that the Rover cannot traverse and return scientific data - this will be extremely important for future missions which could combine a Rover with a reconnaissance helicopter - this was very important,"

This photo was taken by Ingenuity on the helicopter's 13th flight, September 5, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA issued another extension for the helicopter after its original 30-day period expired. NASA decided to continue flying Ingenuity, even if the helicopter crashed or interfering with Perseverance operations. Both have not occurred yet.

Ingenuity has performed flawlessly on almost all flights. One glitch in May caused Ingenuity to pitch and roll mid-flight. The helicopter landed safely.

The helicopter is seen tilting backwards in a sequence of images that Ingenuity's Navigation Camera captured on May 22. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA increased Ingenuity's rotor spin speed for its two last flights.

Ingenuity must rotate its two blades in opposite directions at a speed of 2,400 rotations per hour (rpm) in order to generate enough lift in the Martian atmosphere. The air is thinner because summer is now in full swing at Jezero Crater. This is because carbon dioxide turns to snow and ice at the planet's southern pole, which removes some of it from the atmosphere. The blades are now running at 2,700 rpm.

This is how ingenuity has flown twice.

NASA plans to fly the helicopter another four to seven times to return it to the spot where Perseverance landed first on Mars. The agency has not yet disclosed any other plans.

Ingenuity's shadow was captured by its navigation camera during flight 15 on November 6, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA plans to eventually send more ambitious helicopters to Mars and other worlds. Ingenuity-type space drones could one day survey difficult terrain from the air, examine large areas faster than a rover, and even perform reconnaissance for astronauts.

NASA has already developed a similar helicopter mission. A rotorcraft called Dragonfly will launch towards Saturn's moon Titan in 2027. It will investigate whether the methane-rich planet could be home to alien life.

Business Insider has the original article.